Seattle Police Department faces staffing shortages causing slower response times

May 28, 2024, 2:49 PM

Photo: SPD responds to a shooting amid staffing shortages....

SPD responds to a shooting amid staffing shortages. (Photo courtesy of the Seattle Police Department)

(Photo courtesy of the Seattle Police Department)

Despite a very public push to recruit new officers, staffing challenges and response times have changed very little within the Seattle Police Department (SPD), according to an updated report presented to the Seattle City Council Public Safety Committee on Tuesday.

After grappling with unexpected officer separations over the past three years, SPD is still not hiring enough officers to replace those who have left. While the rate of officer separations has become more predictable and is steadily decreasing, the department is now on track to hire even fewer recruits than last year.

The department had 1,002 fully trained officers at the end of 2023, but new estimates expect that number to drop by 10 officers to 992 by the end of 2024. SPD’s original 2024 staffing plan assumed 120 hires and 105 separations. SPD is now planning for 20 fewer hires and five fewer separations in 2024.

The new projections reflect changes realized in the first quarter. The projections are not adjusted for future months (April-Dec 2024), which are likely to produce fewer hires than previously planned.

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SPD staffing woes have impact on public safety metrics

SPD’s staffing woes are having a noticeable impact on public safety metrics. Response times for emergency calls are worsening as the department struggles to maintain adequate staffing levels. SPD’s response time goal for a priority one call is a 7-minute median time, meaning half of the calls were over 7 minutes and the other half were less than 7 minutes.

A priority one call is when someone’s life could be in danger. Priority two is still an emergency but not life-threatening, potentially resulting in an injury. Priority three is a non-emergency incident like a noise complaint or illegal campfire, requiring an officer to respond to take a follow-up report.

From January to March 2024, the median response time citywide was 7.9 minutes, with an average response time of 11.4 minutes. For priority two calls, the median was 33.1 minutes, and the average was 75.7 minutes. For priority three calls, the median was 81.8 minutes, and the average was 154.5 minutes, more than 2.5 hours.

Comparing the first quarter of 2024 to the same period last year, all five precincts lagged behind their 2023 average and median response times for all priority calls, except in the Southwest Precinct, which improved priority two call times. The West Precinct, which is in downtown Seattle, had the best median response time at 6.3 minutes, while the Northwest Precinct, the largest geographically in the city, had the worst median time at 9.8 minutes.

Council President Sara Nelson expressed concern over reassigning detectives and beat cops to patrol due to staffing issues.

“If we have removed the investigators and put them into patrol, that means we can’t do proactive policing; we are just responding to emergency calls,” Nelson said.

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SPD faces budget issues

Compounding these issues is SPD’s budget management. As of the first quarter of 2024, the department has already spent 24% of its annual overtime budget. Projections suggest that SPD may overspend its overtime budget by the end of the year. The current hiring shortfalls have inadvertently provided salary savings of $3 million that could be used to offset the potential overtime budget overspend. However, this balance is precarious and may shift if hiring improves and overtime spending continues to rise.

Council member Rob Saka questioned the need for executive protection for Chief Adrian Diaz, suggesting it could represent a cost-saving measure if reduced.

“We normally would expect to have executive protection for the mayor versus chiefs of police without a response to a specific threat,” Saka said.

The impact of the recently passed CB 120776, aimed at improving SPD’s recruitment and retention, has yet to be felt due to delays and the recent approval of a 23% retroactive pay raise for officers. SPD’s ability to manage its budget effectively in the coming months will largely depend on its success in recruiting new officers and controlling overtime expenditures. The department’s leadership is under pressure to address these challenges promptly to prevent further deterioration of response times and to maintain public safety.

Matt Markovich often covers the state legislature and public policy for KIRO Newsradio. You can read more of Matt’s stories here. Follow him on X, or email him here.

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