The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office’s $15,000 signing bonuses aren’t going away anytime soon.
Following requests from the Sheriff’s Office and Spokane County Detention Services, the county commissioners voted Tuesday to amend the county’s bonus policy, allowing the departments to continue offering hiring bonuses of up to $15,000 through 2022. The bonuses would have ended on Dec. 31 without the amendment.
The Sheriff’s Office began offering $15,000 signing bonuses this spring; Detention Services followed suit in August with $10,000 bonuses. Not every new employee gets a bonus that big. The $15,000 and $10,000 are reserved for lateral hires – experienced officers who move to the county from other agencies.
Both the Sheriff’s Office and Detention Services – which operates the county jail – say the bonuses are essential at a time when agencies throughout the country are having difficulty hiring.
“It’s imperative we keep it,” Detention Services Lieutenant Don Hooper said of the bonus in a Dec. 7 county commissioner meeting. “It has helped our turnout numbers greatly.”
Detention Services has about 320 allocated positions but has had times this year when more than 20 of those have been vacant. Hooper said since offering the $10,000 signing bonus, Detention Services has hired eight corrections officers and seen its application numbers double.
The staffing shortage has been more severe for the Sheriff’s Office.
Low unemployment makes hiring harder, but law enforcement leaders and criminal justice reform advocates agree highly publicized police killings of Black people in recent years have reduced the number of young people interested in becoming police officers. Since the pool of new officers is small, some agencies are focusing their efforts on luring officers away from other police departments.
Agencies are in a bidding war for a limited supply of officers, and signing bonuses have become common. Some cities offer bigger bonuses than Spokane County; the Seattle Police Department now has a $25,000 signing bonus.
Todd Mielke, the Sheriff Office’s chief administrative officer, said in the Dec. 7 meeting that the Sheriff’s Office is recruiting as aggressively as any agency in the country.
This spring, the Sheriff’s Office launched a billboard campaign. Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said he strategically purchased billboard space in cities where local leaders had disparaged police: Denver, Portland, Austin and the Seattle area.
In November, the Sheriff’s Office spent $12,000 for two days of billboard space in New York City’s Times Square. Some called the move financially irresponsible, but Knezovich defended it, arguing that the national media attention the billboards generated was worth thousands in free advertising.
Mielke said the ad campaign and bonuses have helped fill vacancies.
The county authorizes the Sheriff’s Office to employ about 225 deputies, but earlier this year the agency was short by about 40. Mielke said at one point the Sheriff’s Office’s vacancy rate was almost 20%.
In 2021, the Sheriff’s Office has hired 25 officers. Mielke said that the Sheriff’s Office could hire as many as five more deputies before the end of the year, and added that the agency will need to hire another 20 in 2022 to offset impending retirements.
On top of giving the county commissioners a staffing update, Mielke also shared some information on the number of applications the Sheriff’s Office received in 2021.
Mielke said nearly 700 applied to be Spokane County sheriff’s deputies. Many of the applications – and several of the new hires – came from California. Eight New Yorkers applied after the Times Square ads ran last month.
A significant number of applications came from officers working at agencies that have imposed COVID-19 vaccine mandates, Mielke said.
He noted that the Sheriff’s Office received 22 applications from Washington State Patrol, King County Sheriff’s Office and Seattle Police Department officers.
The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office has emphasized in its recruiting campaign that it does not have a vaccination requirement. The Sheriff’s Office says it is not specifically targeting unvaccinated officers.
Mielke said that maintaining the signing bonus and hiring more officers is in the county’s best interest.
“As we fill vacancies we make this community safer,” he said.