Seattle mayor, councilmembers work on police hiring incentives

A report released by the City Budget Office found there was not enough conclusive data to determine if police hiring incentives worked.

SEATTLE — Following alignment with Mayor Bruce Harrell, two Seattle City Council members were able to pass legislation establishing hiring incentives for some hard-to-fill positions in the City of Seattle, including open police jobs, through the public safety committee Tuesday.

“We have to, as a city, change the whole narrative about how we look at police officers and that’s what we are doing. We have a demoralized police force. We’ve looked at all of the exit interviews to make sure that we know what officers are saying.” said Harrell.

Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold proposed an ordinance that would allow the Seattle Police Department (SPD) to use $650,000 in salary savings to pay for relocation benefits for SPD hires and allow the department to hire a recruiter. Benefits would also be available for other citywide positions that have proven difficult to fill. 

On Tuesday before it was passed, the ordinance was amended to include wording that would keep the cost of the program from exceeding the amount of salary savings within the department. 

Councilmember Sara Nelson plans to propose a “friendly” resolution that would increase SPD’s advertising and outreach budget by $350,000 and support the national search process for the department’s next police chief. 

The resolution was amended to say that the advertising budget would be up to $350,000 and the search for a new permanent chief of police would be given a budget of up to $150,000. 

Both proposals passed the public safety committee by a 4-1 vote with Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda the only “no” vote each time. 

The two proposals will now head to the full council for a vote on May 24. 

“There is a new sense of urgency that is being voiced, at the same time or perhaps in part because of, we keep losing officers and we have to make sure we have an adequately staffed police department to address our public safety crisis,” Nelson said.

A report by Seattle’s City Budget Office suggested hiring incentives had no impact on the number of applicants to the police department in the month after the department began offering the signing bonuses. The Community Safety and Communications Center did see an approximately five-time increase in applicants, however. 

The budget office determined there was not enough conclusive data to determine if hiring bonuses worked.

Based on feedback from city departments, the largest barrier to attracting, retaining and promoting internal and external candidates is the current job compensation and classification system, including minimum qualifications constraints. 

The budget office concluded “[hiring bonuses are] a one-time quick fix that may not compensate for uncompetitive wages, difficult or unsupportive work conditions, lack of opportunity to develop career-relevant experience and skills and limited promotion opportunities.” The office also found signing bonuses had a negative impact on the morale of existing employees.  

“I don’t think a recruiter or even more salaries and benefits or hiring bonuses are going to actually change the numbers of officers that will be applying or the quality of officers that will be applying. It’s the work environment that is the issue and this new council legislation doesn’t address that,” said Bob Scales, a former King County Deputy Prosecutor turned law enforcement consultant. 

Herbold responded to the report’s findings saying Nelson’s resolution would give SPD time to develop a staffing incentive program that may or may not end up including traditional hiring bonuses, based on a proposal from the executive.

“While there is much left to do, this is an encouraging step toward the unity it will take to overcome [the public safety] crisis,” Nelson said. “This is what good governance looks like.” 

Harrell acknowledged it would take more than hiring incentives to reach national best practice staffing levels for the SPD, but said the two proposals put forward by Herbold and Nelson are a step in the right direction. 

“I hope that between these two councilmembers’ efforts, and following a robust policy debate, we can work together toward what we’re all striving for: a safe and healthy Seattle,” Harrell said.

The King County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) discussed the same staffing issue Tuesday and how it relates to the county’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. 

Patti Cole-Tindall, who has been nominated to become sheriff by Executive Dow Constantine, told a county council committee that 91 KCSO employees have been denied exemptions or accommodations while 55 employees have been fired or retired since the mandate was put in place.

In total, the KCSO has 172 position vacancies.