When police detectives and public information officers are told to put on a uniform and hit the streets in a patrol car, it’s evident that staffing levels are a concern.
Both the Spokane Police Department and the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office are hiring as quickly as they can, but they’re held back by the 18 months it takes to get a new recruit on the streets and a single police academy in the state that hasn’t expanded its class sizes in years.
It can be hard to get new recruits into the academy, Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said. “This is a statewide problem,” he said.
Both agencies recently had new recruits graduate from the academy, but those recruits still face about two weeks of classroom work and a year of field training before they can go out on patrol on their own.
Police Chief Frank Straub is optimistic. There are currently 283 sworn officers in his department and he’s authorized to have 302. He expects to be up to 295 by the end of the summer. “We are hiring about as fast as we can,” he said.
Hiring a new police officer is not a simple thing, Straub said. It usually takes 15 applicants to get one good recruit. The ones that don’t make it are typically stopped by the background check, drug screening or polygraph test, he said. “We have very, very high standards,” he said. “People do crazy things they don’t talk about. Sometimes it’s drug issues, sometimes it’s petty thievery, sometimes it’s domestic issues.”
Knezovich has been talking for years about wanting more deputies, and things have only gotten worse recently, he said. There are 219 sworn officers in the department, which includes deputies contracted to provide service in the city of Spokane Valley. That number includes five temporary positions that have been funded over the last few years. Knezovich said he’d like to make those temporary positions permanent and add an additional six permanent positions. Even then, he won’t be at the 247 deputies he had in 2008.
Adding to the problems are some unexpected early retirements and several deputies out with injuries. “We have been cut to the level that we can’t absorb people being hurt or injured,” Knezovich said.
Five of his deputies recently hired on with the Spokane Police Department because the city pays more, Knezovich said. The disparity in pay between the county and the city even extends to dispatchers, who are paid $15,000 more a year if they work for the city. “We’re not competitive anymore,” he said.
The department has several new deputies in field training and more enrolled in the five-month-long police academy. “By September I think we’ll be back where we were two months ago,” Knezovich said. “That gives me a third of what I’ve lost (since 2008).”
How many officers a police department should have is a subjective number. The FBI reports that in 2010 the national police staffing average was 2.3 officers for every 1,000 in population. The city of Spokane had an estimated 2012 population of 209,525, giving it roughly 1.35 officers per thousand. In comparison, the city of Boise had an estimated 2012 population of 212,303 and 312 sworn officers, giving it a rate of roughly 1.47 officers per thousand.
The more police officers there are, the lower the crime rate is, Straub said. His department is meeting the demand, but there’s very little wiggle room right now, he said.
“Getting to 300 (officers) is critically important to driving those rates down,” he said. “We need to continue to drive it down, and we have to be able to sustain those reductions. We need people to do that.”
Until the new recruits can hit the street, the city and county are doing what they can to fill the gaps. The Sheriff’s Office had two deputies that served as public information officers along with other assigned duties. One is back out on patrol, and the other has been staffing the front desk at the Public Safety Building. In Spokane, a detective recently wrote in a search warrant affidavit that he had initially responded to the incident he was investigating while he was acting as a patrol officer “due to staffing shortages.”