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Shawn Vestal: Police hiring is cause for sigh of relief

We need more cops.

The heartening news is that we’re actually getting them.

As the ombudsman plan founders and as calls for the mayor to reopen negotiations on the Police Guild contract are renewed, it is reassuring that the plan to hire 25 more police officers is not getting hung up in the mess.

The department recently hired 12 new officers; five of them are through the police academy and ready to work, and seven are in that process. The plan is to reach the budgeted 25 new hires by the end of the year. That will give Spokane a police force of 300; you can argue whether it’s enough, but it’s absolute progress. It’s slower than one might wish for, given that it can take 18 months to hire and train a new officer, but it’s the first forward motion on this front in recent years.

This is happening despite the stalling of the proposed guild contract and a highly uncertain political environment that now surrounds the grand bargain that Mayor David Condon has tried to patch together on police issues. That includes an elaborate work-around of the requirements in the City Charter to establish independence for the police ombudsman; the administration argues that it has achieved such independence, while many police reform advocates and some members of the City Council disagree. They’re urging the mayor to try again, and there’s the hint in the air that the council – now tipped politically against the mayor – will be a tough sell on the contract if he doesn’t.

The mayor’s spokesman, Brian Coddington, said everything’s on the table right now. But whether the talks are resumed, or whether there are more political battles over if they should be, the prospect of a longer resolution is now before us.

Because the mayor has previously said the city couldn’t move forward on hiring more cops without a contract in place, it seemed like an open question whether the problems with the contract might stifle hiring. A television news report left the impression with some people that hiring plans had been scaled back.

City officials insist that’s not the case.

“We are still hiring 25 new officers,” said Monique Cotton, spokeswoman for the Spokane Police Department.

City Council President Ben Stuckart said, “The council approved 25, and I expect 25.”

Coddington said the plan is for 25 new officers this year, though the budget is based on a dollar amount and not a number of officers. It’s possible the figure could change a bit if the costs end up changing. Still, six months after the mayor insisted he could not hire more police officers without at least a tentative guild contract, drawing criticism from some of us, his approach is bearing fruit.

By “some of us,” I mean me.

Six months ago, I wrote a piece arguing that we need a public safety levy, and we need a strong mayor to lead the charge for it. I still think this is more or less true. But I underestimated the options for adding cops without raising taxes, and Condon’s budget – in addition to the fact that the hiring is still moving forward – proved it. He found a way to hire 25 officers, basing the cost on the tentative contract agreement with the guild.

Connecting new hiring with the contract seemed like a recipe for never hiring enough cops, or not doing so soon enough. The potential for intractable and endless conflict with the Police Guild – aka, the norm – seemed, and seems, very real. Linking the two also hinted that Condon was placing heavy qualifications on his stated goals of making Spokane the safest city of its size in the country.

A big, big piece of making that goal a reality is more cops. Not more cops at the right price, or not more cops if we can avoid taxes. More cops, plain and simple. Shifting desks and changing the management structure and tracking computer data – as helpful as any of that might be – cannot be the only approach to crime in Spokane. We are under-copped, plain and simple. Still, Condon unveiled a budget that adds 25 cops. That was based on a tentative contract agreement with the guild that has now stalled. The number of tendrils and concerns and issues that are tied up in this process make it seem as if a single grand bargain can’t quite cover them all. And if this contract winds up in binding arbitration, many believe an arbitrator will award the guild bigger raises than they’re getting in this one.

In other words, we are in the position that seemed to be such a concern earlier this year: Some degree of uncertainty about where police salaries might land.

So it’s great that no one is expressing any uncertainty about the new cops the city is going to hire.

Because we need them.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.