SEATTLE - Seattle Police Department’s interim police chief said a lack of officers and detectives slowed down investigation efforts into sexual assault cases. Chief Adrian Diaz said it’s an indication of just how short-staffed the entire department has become.
"Every bureau, every section is shorter staffed. They don’t have as many officers, or as many detectives doing that extra work," said Diaz. "When we have more people that we’re hiring, we’re able to backfill the detective positions—the sexual assault, the homicide—with good officers to help investigate those areas of work."
He said since 2019, 402 officers and detectives left the department. The number of detectives dwindled from 234 down to 134, including those who investigate sexual assault cases.
The interim chief said as soon as he became aware of the Sexual Assault Unit’s heavy caseload in April, he immediately sought out solutions to help the unit get back on track. The department added one detective to the unit that same month.
"And we’re adding one more detective in the month of June to really help be able to address some of the backlog that we have. Because when you’re short-staffed, you’re still working through all the cases, but you’re having to really triage every single case," said Diaz.
According to King County prosecutors, they noticed fewer sexual assault cases were referred to their office by SPD. In April 2020, the prosecutors received 123 cases, but only 72 cases the following April.
Diaz said as the department faces challenges retaining, recruiting and hiring staff, they’re using what they have to investigate these top priority cases.
"We’ve also been utilizing our Domestic Violence Unit that has very similar skills to our sexual assault detectives. And they're dealing with interviewing skills with children and families that have been in trauma," said Diaz.
The King County Sexual Assault Resource Center said only a small fraction of victims choose to report to law enforcement. Mary Ellen Stone, CEO, said in a statement, "Those who do report tell us they often feel their experience, this crime, is not taken seriously. When victims are not given basic information about timing, options and next steps in their cases, the system is failing them."
"I understand that there have been delays, and sometimes us making contact, but we’re working through all of those challenges and we want to make sure that you have a voice and we want to make sure that your case is being heard and we are doing everything we can to bring justice," said Diaz.
The interim chief said the department currently has a pilot program underway that includes calling victims of assault to check on them. It’s a partnership with the City of Seattle’s Human Resources Office and the victim outreach support group. Diaz also said SPD is ramping up collaborations with organizations like King County Sexual Assault Resource Center to offer a host of resources toward healing.
"The trauma that people have from these cases, it’s an emotionally draining situation and they want to have some level of accountability and justice for what happened. And so we have to make sure that we’re going through every case," said Diaz.
As for SPD’s efforts in addressing its staffing issues, Diaz said they’re conducting "robust" levels of retaining, recruiting and hiring.
"We want to make sure that we streamline our hiring process so people aren’t waiting through the process and getting picked up by another agency. And we are working with our executive office, our mayor’s office and our city council. They’ve just recently looked to be able to hire a recruiting coordinator for us to be able to get more messages out to people that really want to serve," said Diaz.
The interim chief said the department is also planning a comprehensive economic package to ensure their officers feel respected and supported.
"It’s about service, it’s about trying to be dedicated to help out the community and this is what that profession brings," said Diaz.