The Seattle City Council meeting last week ran nearly four hours, with well over a third devoted to a review of Seattle Police Department’s quarterly staffing and budget report. As expected whenever the Council takes up SPD’s budget, there were some frosty moments charged with political meaning.
With attrition running very high, SPD now projects over $15 million of salary savings in 2021. That, of course, has both the Council and SPD salivating over how that money could be repurposed. SPD put forth its own proposal for how it would like to spend nearly all of the money, a multi-part plan covering several departmental needs including:
- Costs associated with the high attrition, including separation pay;
- Filling some civilian positions in SPD that were left open during the pandemic;
- Some technology investments, including finishing deployment of a new scheduling and timekeeping system that has been in the works for over five years (SPD still tracks overtime on paper forms);
- Additional budget for overtime to cover events such as Seahawks games, since with the early arrival of vaccines the reopening of Seattle has led to the return of sports and events earlie than originally budgeted for;
- Potential COVID-related compensation adjustments for employees required to work during the pandemic;
- Three new civilian community safety investments — the new Triage One unit, a new 911 dispatch system that will more easily allow third-parties to participate; and funding for the regional Peacekeepers gun violence prevention program.
Parts of this, most notably the open civilian staff positions in the department, SPD already has authority to use some of the salary savings to fund. But anything requiring moving money to other budget line-items, such as the technology investments, requires Council actions. In addition, there are several provisos that the Council placed on SPD’s salary budget that currently restrict SPD from spending the full $15 million with the council’s prior approval.
The Councilmembers carried out their oversight duties by drilling down on these items and asking detailed questions of SPD representatives. Councilmembers Lisa Herbold and Teresa Mosqueda are preparing an amendment for the mid-year 2021 supplemental budget ordinance that would incorporate some (but probably not all) of SPD’s requests.
But in the hour and a half it took them to get there, two surprising things happened. First, Councilmember Herbold voiced a sentiment that SPD officers have been waiting over a year to hear:
“I want to take this moment to thank those who are remaining and committed to law enforcement public service in Seattle and hope folks who want to continue in serving in this role as a public servant consider continuing to do so. Really appreciative that you are expressing your commitment to the city and to this community by staying with us. Thank you.”
Councilmembers Pedersen and Lewis lent their own voices in support of Herbold’s words. You can watch it here; jump to 2:45:30.
And then Council President Lorena Gonzalez, in the second big surprise of the session, took the conversation dramatically in the opposite direction (2:50:40 on the video). She teed up a line of questioning apparently intended to lay the blame for SPD’s high attrition back on the department itself by accusing it of inattention to retention strategies. Her first attempt was a jumbled mess as Gonzalez repeatedly confused “recruitment” with “retention” in a question to Dr. Chris Fisher, SPD’s Executive Director of Strategic Initiatives:
“When we hear about SPD’s staffing issues and when SPD talks about staffing issues to the media, what we continue to hear is ringing of the alarm bells around hiring, and what we don’t necessarily hear about is the recruitment aspects of SPD’s management responsibilities. And so knowing that SPD’s hiring plan is fully funded for 2021, I am not hearing a lot of strategies from SPD about the recruitment pieces of this conversation. And I think that is both unfortunate and a missed opportunity to have a conversation about recruitment. Because that’s really where I’m seeing these numbers tell a story — is about how are we addressing things like current officer wellness and well-being, how are we addressing how we are addressing staffing issues, i.e. transfers from positions that are more favorable to positions that officer don’t necessarily want to be doing, and addressing shift issues as well. I don’t see anything in this presentation, and maybe we’re going to get to it a little bit later, about recruitment, not recruitment but retention strategies that address where I see the most significant concerns existing, which is around separations. And so I would like to hear from Dr. Fisher or anyone else from SPD on the line about what specific strategies is the agency pursuing to address the issue of retention of existing and new officers in light of these numbers related to separations.”
When Fisher understandably tried to speak to both recruitment and retention, Gonzalez jumped down his throat, doubling down on her accusation that SPD is at fault for low officer retention:
“I am focusing in on retention, which is where I see the issue. I think these numbers tell a story about how SPD has significant room for improvement, management of SPD has significant room for improvement for retaining the new officers and existing officers that have been hired or have continued to be an officer at SPD.”
Fisher gave a long, at times emotional, response:
“When we talk to folks some of the things we could do is what happened about 10 minutes ago, which I don’t think happened in a year, which is hearing from a broad selection of the city that they want folks to stay here. They’ve heard it from the chief, they’ve heard it at times from the community, from the press, but I think this is the first time in a while that they’ve heard it from a broad section of electeds. Sorry, I’m getting a little emotional, because a lot of these people I’ve built relationships with, and I know how much it hurt them. I’m not out there on the front line getting yelled at, it’s a place of privilege I have, is to sit in an office, But I know how much it hurt them to feel that they were the younger ones being told they might get laid off, and I think that was a message that maybe this wasn’t the place to be a police officer. And I think today I appreciate so much of everyone who spoke up. I think that means a lot.
“In terms of strategies, we have talked with the executive about ways to get people to stay that we see other departments do. Some of these have fiscal costs, some would probably have to be negotiated, lots of places help cover tuition for classes for people to get advanced degrees. They help pay for gym memberships. There are all sorts of those sort of benefits that aren’t extra salary but help people show that they’re investing in you. They want you to professionally develop. They want you to take advantage of all the training you can have access to.”
Gonzalez wasn’t buying it, and pushed back hard (once again confusing recruitment with retention).
“So I didn’t hear an answer to my question, and I’m really disappointed about that. What I heard is a lot of language, again, on the hiring side, and I’m not interested in politics. I’m interested in actual policy solutions, because that’s my job. So I would like to get an understanding from command staff, what specific things, strategies, investments, interventions, other recommendations, are being advanced to address the reality of recruitment? I’m sorry, retention. Retention. That’s really what I think the issue is here. Because we have fully funded y’all to do the hiring that you need to do. And where I’m seeing that there continues to be a significant concern, and I think this is on management, is how do we retain officers that we have spent time hiring that the department has funded and green-lit to be able to move forward with those hiring processes.
“And so I’m not hearing about what the chief and command staff are doing as it relates to actually retaining those individuals. And there will be issues that I suspect will need to be addressed via the bargaining, and we are already in the midst of doing those particular operational fixes, but I think that what I understand from the interdepartmental work that you referenced Dr. Fisher, which my office participated in and so did Council central staff, is that a lot of those recommendations have been left on the table, particularly last year, because of COVID and because of the reality of needing to move forward. So I feel that we have not, and by ‘we’ I mean the executive, has not spent enough time addressing, specifically, the strategies related to how SPD’s management is addressing the retention issues related to SPD.”
Fisher tried again, with a more detailed list of department retention programs, but also added:
“They want to know that people are investing in them, investing in the department, that they are appreciated, and that they have… they’ve signed on, most of themLorena, for a 25 to 30 year commitment, and they want some assurance that that is going to be honored. That’s what we hear from them.”
Herbold cut off the argument there. This was a brazen act of political deflection by Gonzalez. As for declaring “I’m not interested in politics,” this is an obvious stretcher for the candidate for Mayor as she performatively tried to score political points with her base by attacking SPD; but by denying the obvious, widely-known fact detailed in SPD officers’ exit interviews that many officers left because (rightly or wrongly) they didn’t feel supported by City Hall, and in particular by the City Council. Her colleagues Lisa Herbold, Andrew Lewis, and Alex Pedersen knew that well enough to go out of their way just a few minutes earlier to thank SPD officers; but Gonzalez was having none of that.
SPD’s recruitment and retention programs were of considerably less concern to Gonzalez last summer when she co-sponsored a budget amendment to cut $800,000 from SPD’s recruitment and retention budget.
It was good to see the City Council thoroughly interrogate SPD’s budget requests this week, as is proper for its oversight role. It was infuriating to see Gonzalez take cheap shots at SPD management while denying her own contributing role, as President of the City Council, in SPD’s high attrition. There are plenty of existing reasons to criticize SPD command staff; there’s no need to invent new ones.