SEATTLE - Police chief Adrian Diaz blames Seattle Police's slow 911 response times on the ongoing staffing crisis affecting his department. Efforts to beef up incentives and retention bonuses through the city council have largely floundered.
Diaz told members of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee on Tuesday that neighboring police agencies are poaching officers with better incentives that he cannot offer.
So far this year, 43 officers have separated from the police department and only 13 have been hired.
SPD is lowering its projection hiring of 125 officers in 2022 down to 98, while it estimates 125 officers will leave by year's end.
"Number one: officers want to be valued, they want to feel appreciated, and they are also thinking about their own health and wellbeing," Diaz told council members.
He told the council how he’s had to move more people to patrol to lower 911 call-response times, and those patrol officers are burning out, working lots of overtime just to handle the bare minimum of calls.
"As crime goes up, and they are having to respond to call, to call, to call and not getting much downtime, that puts a huge level of stress on them," said Diaz. "They can go to another agency that’s experiencing less of that violence, less of those crimes and less call response and interacting with the community more, and that helps them with their own mental state."
But the meeting went beyond the scope of what committee chair Lisa Herbold had intended—it turned into a debate on whether incentives work and if nearly $4.5 million in predicted salary savings could go elsewhere.
"Our revenues are not matching our general fund spending," said council member Teresa Mosqueda. "That money could be used next year".
She also cited a University of Washington professor who shared a study during a previous committee meeting.
"The 2021 study found that 49% of all of our 911 calls—which constitute 80% of the call volume—could be responded to by an alternative responder, not a sworn officer," she said.
But when council member Alex Pederson asked Greg Doss, a council staff member, if the city had an alternative police response in place, the answer was no.
Talk of alternatives of a sworn officer response to 911 calls accelerated after the death of George Floyd and the protests that followed in 2020. However, there has been no alternative 911 response in place other than Health One, operated by the Seattle Fire Department for behavior health issue calls.
"I think all of us can agree that we do have a hiring crisis at the Seattle Police Department," said council member Andrew Lewis.
Diaz told the county that priority one 911 calls, the most urgent calls where a person’s physical wellbeing could be in danger, have risen.
"Our priority two calls have gone up and actually exceed 30 minutes, and our priority three calls is almost over an hour," Diaz said. "Even when people do need 911 services, we are not able to respond in an adequate amount of time."
"We are clearly dealing with a public safety emergency, we don't have enough officers on the street to deal with it," said council member Sara Nelson, who is sponsoring a resolution that calls for the mayor to draft a plan to offer incentives to retain and hire more officers.
"Are we happy with the status quo? Are we fine not doing anything? I’m not," said Nelson.
Herbold is sponsoring a resolution to set aside $625,000 for moving expenses for newly-hired officers.
As committee chairperson, Herbold has the prerogative to call for a vote on the measures. Before the meeting even started, she said the committee would not vote on either her proposal or Nelson's.
The council may vote on the proposals on May 10. If Seattle Police's projections hold, two more officers could have separated from the department by that time.