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To ease Seattle police shortage, city looks to speed up hiring process

caption: The Seattle City Council is considering an ordinance to streamline the testing process for police recruits in order to combat severe staffing shortages.
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The Seattle City Council is considering an ordinance to streamline the testing process for police recruits in order to combat severe staffing shortages.
Seattle Police Department recruiting video, courtesy of SPD.

The Seattle City Council is drafting legislation to move all the city’s police recruiting efforts into the police department itself. It’s part of an effort to ease acute staffing shortages at SPD by speeding up the testing and hiring process.

At a briefing last month Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz said, “We've lost 725 officers over the last five years.” He said SPD is down to about 913 trained and deployable officers — the lowest level of police staffing since the 1990s.

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At a committee meeting Thursday, Council President Sara Nelson blamed the previous council majority for what she said was a reluctance to add positions at the police department. For that reason, Nelson said the council focused on implementing Mayor Bruce Harrell’s 2022 retention and recruitment plan through the city’s Department of Human Resources instead, where progress has been slow.

“One of the problems was that some of the recommendations…were just not taken up," Nelson said. "That might have been an issue with bandwidth.”

Or, she said, the city’s Department of Human Resources might have lacked expertise in the specifics of police hiring.

The two police recruiters called for under Harrell’s plan have since been moved from that department over to SPD. Now Nelson is developing proposed legislation to provide “wraparound support” to police applicants.

The measure would add a manager over the two recruiters who would be responsible for improving outcomes around hiring. One goal would be to contact every applicant within two business days, and again within two business days after they complete the required written exam.

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Greg Doss with the City Council's central staff said the timeframe for SPD's hiring process used to be up to nine months, and the goal is to reduce that by more than half. Entry level candidates must complete a written exam, a physical agility test, an interview, a background investigation, a medical evaluation, a psychological evaluation, and a polygraph exam.

The legislation may expand or change which required exam is offered, to resemble the one used in neighboring cities. Currently SPD requires applicants to take National Testing Network’s FrontLine exam, used by other big city departments on the West Coast. But the exam provided by Public Safety Testing is more common in Washington and used by smaller neighboring cities.

Councilmember Bob Kettle said he’d like SPD to accept results from either exam, as a few other jurisdictions currently do including Snohomish County.

Doss said ranking candidates based on two different exams “may be legally tricky.” The exams are administered by the city’s Public Safety Civil Service Commission. The proposed ordinance could be unveiled at the next meeting of the Governance Committee on April 25.

RELATED: Seattle police lieutenant condemns Chief Diaz, says he enables department ‘serial harasser’

A council memo said applications from police recruits in the past five years declined from a high of 3,118 in 2019 to a low of 1,895 in 2022. And yet the percentage of applicants who were ultimately hired remained constant: about 3%.

City leaders are also hoping a tentative contract deal between the city and the Seattle Police Officers Guild will attract more recruits. It calls for giving new officers $103,000 a year, a 23% increase from the previous contract. It’s still subject to a vote by guild membership before the tentative agreement will be officially released and considered by the council.

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