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Seattle police face officer shortages amid the city's growth. But there's been some progress

In 2018, the Seattle Police Department hired dozens of officers. But so many left that same year, the department suffered a net loss of 41 people.

Mayor Jenny Durkan said Seattle faces challenges with the hiring and retention of police officers.

“We are one of the fastest growing cities in America, but our police department has not been able to keep pace,” Durkan said.

Seattle is not unique, Durkan added. She said departments across the country are having a hard time keeping pace with officer hiring.

But she said the city is making some progress.

In 2019, the Seattle Police Department hired 108 officers — the highest number of hires in over a decade, according to city officials. Nearly 40% of those hires were people of color and 17% were women.

“That is the highest percentage of people of color hired in a single year in the history of the Seattle Police Department,” Durkan said.

But despite the progress, officials said more needs to be done.

While hiring spiked in 2019, the Seattle Police Department continued to lose people, with 92 people departing that year.

Currently, the Seattle Police Department has about 60 vacancies. Best said the city is utilizing signing bonuses, its larger recruitment campaign, and other strategies to bring more officers into the department.

A memo sent to Seattle City Council members indicates that the difficulty with regard to recruitment and retention can be attributed to a combination of factors.

“These factors include a national shortage in police recruit applications, incentives offered by other local jurisdictions (officers hired away from the [Seattle Police Department] to other police departments received up to $15,000 as a signing bonus), higher housing costs in the Seattle area, commute times, historically low unemployment, negative perceptions of policing,” the memo states.

A survey published by the Police Executive Research Forum in 2019 pointed to a national shortage of police officers, affecting law enforcement agencies across the country, on all levels.

The memo states the Seattle Police Department's projected number of officer departures remains higher than normal because several of these trends are expected to continue in the short term.

Durkan said she and Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best meet regularly to discuss how to retain officers.

Durkan said that “the community has to see themselves in the police department, and the police department needs to know that the community values them."

“I think we’ve made some great progress on both of those things,” she added.

The city worked to revamp its recruitment and retention strategies last year and has budgeted $1.2 million in 2020 to implement those strategies.

The Seattle Police Department also announced a new recruitment campaign at a press conference Monday. The efforts will feature billboards of current officers placed in the neighborhoods where they serve.

It’s intended to highlight the department's current staff and help recruit local officers who represent the diverse communities.

“We are not just creating a new campaign to attract the next generation of diverse and talented officers,” Best said.

“These billboards highlight the amazing officers working on the streets today, making people aware of who they are and how it is both so easy and so necessary to support them.”

Best added that the job of being a police officer is tough, but worth it.

“We’re on the front lines of all the tragedy and unpredictability, of big issues like homelessness, mental health and helping our most vulnerable members of our community,” she said. “But being an officer here in Seattle is an amazing opportunity."

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