For the second time in a week, police staffing was a topic of discussion at a West Seattle neighborhood meeting. First one was the Crime Prevention Council meeting last Tuesday (WSB coverage here). Two nights later, the Alki Community Council board spent a large portion of its meeting on the state of policing. Here’s what was said, plus some followup information we obtained:
SEATTLE POLICE: Third watch (6:30 pm-3:30 am) Lt. Chris Johnson attended on behalf of SPD. He said “our street racer problem is still ongoing … we do not have the bodies to put any emphasis toward that.” But he’s hopeful that now that the inauguration is past, some of the officers assigned to the protest-handling Community Response Group might return to patrol. “Almost every night I’m running at or below” minimum staffing levels. “We’re losing bodies to outside agencies at a rate I’ve never seen. … We’re treading water.” He asked about community concerns; one person mentioned fireworks and beach fires – which are continuing year-round; here’s video we received just the night before:
Johnson noted that police were helping park staffers enforce the closing time for a short period last summer. The attendee mentioned general small elements of disorder; Johnson said he wished they had the personnel to deal with that. “The police department’s a band-aid. You can’t put a band-aid on a broken arm.” How can people support the department? Johnson was asked. “Be the squeaky wheel” – not toward the department, but toward city leaders. He also contended that the department has an undeserved reputation – “we went from [being seen as] a model agency to [being seen as] one of the worst in (the span of) a week” last year – without anything having changed, but perception.
Back to staffing – Johnson said the department usually loses 100 a year but last year was at least twice that. Some of the department’s best officers “have found jobs elsewhere, and that hurts.” He says there’s barely enough officers to do what needs to be done – all it takes is one major call to take up everyone; the previous night was rare, a few hours without a call, but the entirety of the South Precinct was dealing with a homicide, so Southwest Precinct officers wound up handling some calls in that area. Johnson said he wished he had enough officers to start the summer by setting a tone against even minor violations.
OUR FOLLOWUP: After both this and the Crime Prevention Council discussion, we set out to find out the state of SPD staffing, both locally and citywide. First we asked SW Precinct commander Capt. Kevin Grossman if Lt. Dorothy Kim‘s description of a 30 percent drop in staffing was still the situation. Yes, he said: “Our staffing is down by 1/3 from this summer due to a variety of reasons: partly because of retirements, resignations, and lateral moves to other agencies, and partly due to the elimination of CPT [Community Police Team], ACT [Anti-Crime Team], bikes, and the centralization of detectives. We are not the only precinct to feel the pinch in staffing numbers; my understanding is that the Department as a whole lost about 200 sworn employees in 2020. I believe that the Department is undertaking efforts to ramp up hiring to make up for those losses, but it will take time to do so and it won’t be until 2022 or so until we see those officers on the street.”
For a citywide look, we asked City Councilmember Lisa Herbold‘s office about any recent reports on SPD staffing, as she chairs the Public Safety and Human Services Committee, which has been monitoring it. They provided us with this council-staff-prepared memo prepared for the committee’s meeting this morning (Tuesday, January 26th, 9:30 am) in reference to a proposal to move $5 million from the SPD budget to another spot in the city budget funding alternate community-safety programs. The memo says, “SPD separated a total of 186 officers in 2020, which is more than twice the number of separations that were projected at the beginning of the year.” Even though interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz moved officers out of specialty units and into patrol, the latter ranks are still down, the memo says: “SPD’s quarterly point-in-time counts of 911 responders, a good measure of Patrol strength, was 588 on December 31, 2020.6 This is down from the 668 responders that were reported on September 30, 2020 and reflected Interim Chief Diaz’s movement of 100 officers out of specialty and investigative positions and into 911 response positions.” The memo also says:
SPD service levels will continue to decrease absent net new hires, meaningful changes to the list of police duties, an increase in overtime usage or a combination of these workload/staffing variables. The net change in deployable sworn personnel from December 2019 to December 2020 equates to a loss of 298,000 productive hours. The department and City cannot hire its way out of a police staffing shortage of this magnitude, and the remaining officers cannot be expected to completely fill this gap on overtime at the expense of employee wellness. As of today, alternative response models have not been established and emergency response duties have not been formally cut or redistributed to other entities.
One more excerpt that speaks to some of what Lt. Johnson was observing:
Despite efforts to address the staffing shortages in Patrol, SPD declared “priority call handling” status on 221 of 366 days last year, meaning the department delivered a reduced level of 911 services for at least part of the day because on-street resources from one or more precincts were depleted significantly below normal staffing. Under this circumstance, certain categories of callers are requested to re-contact SPD. They will be given an approximate time when routine services will be restored. Individual contacts are not logged. The 2020 level of priority call handling (in days) represents a 97% increase from 2018 and a 176% increase from 2017.
You can watch today’s committee discussion via Seattle Channel; this is the last item on the agenda.
Back to the ACC meeting – one other topic was discussed:
PARKS: Amy Hamaker, from the contracts department, who works with the ACC in the partnership to maintain Alki Statue of Liberty Plaza, represented Parks, instead of a department executive who had been scheduled. She said dealing with illegal vendors is a challenge she works on. “This year was out of control” for businesses operating without permits. COVID has caused a lot of challenges staffing-wise. One attendee mentioned a lack of maintenance at Bar-S Playfields and wondered if neighbors are allowed to pitch in themselves. Hamaker wasn’t sure of the general answer but thought Bar-S had its own maintenance agreement with West Seattle Little League. “I’d be happy to do a day of cleanup but I don’t want to get in trouble!” said the attendee. Complaints included lack of landscape maintenance, particularly the palm trees along the east end of the beach. “The floor has fallen out of maintenance at some parks,” declared another attendee. “Even prior to the pandemic, everything seems to be sliding downhill.”
NEXT MEETING: The ACC board usually meets on third Thursdays, 7 pm online, and the community is welcome. Watch alkinews.com for information.