One afternoon last August, Jeanne Tiscareno returned to her Capitol Hill home to find the front door open and the house ransacked. She called 911 and waited on a nearby sidewalk for Seattle police to arrive.
One hour passed, then two, with no sign of an officer. When Tiscareno phoned again, a dispatcher told her the call wasn’t a priority. After three and a half hours, a detective working overtime finally showed up.
“He was great,” said Tiscareno, 58, a marketing consultant. “I just wish they had showed up sooner … It really hurt my faith in this city’s public safety capabilities. It makes me feel Seattle doesn’t have its act together.”
There were more stories like Tiscareno’s last summer, with hard data to back them up. Response times spiked amid the pandemic and the summer’s demonstrations for racial justice, reaching a 41-minute monthly average for all calls and an 11-minute monthly average for the highest-priority calls in June. That was four minutes longer than the department’s 7-minute goal for such calls.
Less clear is how the increase in summer 2020 response times should be interpreted, as police officials battle their critics over funding. The City Council’s public safety committee is scheduled to consider a $5.4 million cut Tuesday.
Law enforcement officials say last summer’s spike should serve as a warning to those who want to quickly defund the police and reinvest in community solutions. They say the department didn’t have enough officers to handle protests, COVID-19 leaves, an unusually high number of murder investigations and cuts to the overtime budget while still getting to 911 calls quickly.
A historic number of officers left Seattle last year, and many more are leaving this year, the officials say, declaring the situation a staffing crisis. The department’s deployable force has dropped by about 200 in the past year.
“There’s only so much a limited number of people can do,” Chris Fisher, the department’s executive director of strategic initiatives, said in an interview.
But defunding advocates attribute the bump in response times last year to the department’s overly aggressive approach to the protests, mention that officer departures were increasing before 2020 and say response times have stabilized in recent months. That demonstrates the department can adjust to staffing reductions by letting lower-priority calls wait, the advocates say.
The department had more officers assigned to 911 response duty last year than in 2019. Strikingly, response times grew in 2020 even as officers mostly stopped proactive policing.
While the defunding movement has won some budget cuts and transfers, the police spent more on overtime in 2020 than in 2019, and the department secured City Council approval for its 2021 staffing requests, the advocates note. They wonder whether some cops may be slacking off to prove a point.
“It seems like the department is using long-term trends” and data blips “to push back on the restructuring and defunding efforts happening right now,” said Angélica Cházaro, a University of Washington law professor active with the advocacy group Decriminalize Seattle.
In a typical month, the department registers about 30,000 calls, divided into four main categories: 911 calls, nonemergency calls, automated alarm calls and officer-initiated calls – for example, when a police officer on patrol stops to check out something suspicious.
Last June, three months into the pandemic and as the protests exploded in Seattle and around the country, officer-initiated calls plunged to a 10-year low. Mostly for that reason, the department’s overall call load dropped by almost half, to about 16,000, by June, according to a Seattle Times analysis.
At the same time, the department’s monthly average response time for all remaining calls more than doubled, climbing from about 20 minutes in May to 41 minutes in June.
Response times for the most serious 911 calls – known as Priority 1 and Priority 2 calls – increased 48% and 84% respectively, even though commanders repeatedly ordered the department to operate on “priority call status.” That means dispatchers send officers only to Priority 1 and Priority 2 calls such as homicides, robberies and assaults, skipping other calls, such as break-ins.
The department’s East Precinct recorded the most dramatic jump with average response times for all calls increasing from under 20 minutes to over 60 minutes between May and June. Priority call responses alone jumped from 7 minutes to 18 minutes in the East Precinct over the same period. The increase corresponded to a period of nightly protests on Capitol Hill and the department’s abandonment of the East Precinct as demonstrators occupied a six-block area there for several weeks.
Response times steadily became faster citywide during the remainder of 2020 as the protests wound down. The average response time for Priority 1 calls has hovered above 9 minutes most months, however, indicating a lingering challenge. This year, average response times to Priority 1 calls have been climbing since January, reaching 9.5 minutes in April.
The department’s call volumes, meanwhile, have remained at their lowest levels in more than a decade. Priority 1 calls, which last year fell below 40,000, had not been below 45,000 annually since 2013.
Why did response times soar last year, even as police handled fewer overall calls? Asked to explain, Fisher said he did “not have evidence-based or clear answers, but I can offer hypotheses.” Staffing stresses played a role, he said.
The summertime protests drew scores of Seattle officers clad in riot gear to Capitol Hill and downtown, reducing the department’s capacity elsewhere, Fisher said. Officers typically assigned to answer 911 calls from precincts located around the city were tapped for demonstration duties.
As the summer wore on, protest fatigue and injuries coupled with COVID-19 and quarantine caused an atypical number of officers to take vacations and leaves, Fisher added.
The department averaged about 110 officers on extended leave or disability in late 2020, compared to about 40 during a typical time period, according to data collected by the council. Meanwhile, the city experienced an elevated number of homicides – incidents that summon an all-hands-on-deck response from on-duty officers.
During and after the summer turmoil, a spate of officers retired and left for other jobs. The department lost 186 officers in 2020 – more than any year on record, according to a council staff memo, including many early career officers.
“The massive separations really accelerated in July through the rest of the month – stretching patrol thinner each week,” Fisher said. “That combined with people out sick/COVID just doesn’t leave that many people to work.”
Seattle’s consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department to curb excessive force and biased policing requires at least two officers to be sent on most calls. At points last summer, with multiple officers absent, a precinct shift normally staffed with two dozen had as few as 10 show up for duty, Fisher said. That meant the precinct could handle no more than five priority calls at once, and that’s assuming there are no homicides.
“You’re not sending two officers to a homicide call,” Fisher said. “You’re probably sending the whole precinct.”
Facing pressure from the protests and defunding advocates, Mayor Jenny Durkan last summer trimmed the department’s overtime budget. In September, the City Council passed a budget bill asking the department to shed up to 100 officers through layoffs and attrition.
Since then, police officials have cited the defunding movement and staffing problems in arguing against additional budget cuts by the council.
The department in 2020 was hamstrung by the “significant reduction in its overtime budget,” Fisher said. Many of the 58 officers who’ve left in 2021 have highlighted Seattle politics as a concern, and only 30 officers have been hired to replace them. The department had 1,090 officers in service in January, down from 1,290 the year before.
If officers continue to leave at the same rate for the rest of 2021, the council could capture about $13 million in salary savings for other uses or allow the department to keep the money. The council has vowed to cut at least $5.4 million to balance an increase approved in December.
Durkan has slammed the council’s threatened cuts for driving officers away. In a recent episode of his Hold the Line podcast, Seattle Police Officers Guild president Mike Solan also criticized defunding advocates for distracting City Hall and leaving the department with “the lowest uniform coverage for patrol purposes since the 1980s.”
“If this doesn’t concern you… it should,” Solan said. “Crime in one way or the other will visit your doorstep if this trend continues.”
Defunding advocates cite alternative data points and conclusions. Despite Durkan’s 2020 budget cut, the department spent $32 million on overtime in 2020, versus $29 million in 2019. Much of the money was used for protests, rather than 911 calls, but the department could have handled the demonstrations differently, Cházaro said.
“They’re making choices every day about how to spend their resources, and they made the choice last summer to staff protests where people were brutalized in incredibly high numbers,” she said.
Flooding demonstrations with crowds of officers can exacerbate tensions, which the department acknowledged recently in changing its crowd-control policies, Councilmember Lisa Herbold pointed out. She argued the department sent more officers to protests than was necessary at times last summer.
Despite the council’s request in September, no officers were laid off last year, and the council in November fully funded the police department’s 2021 hiring plan, so the department’s staffing woes shouldn’t be blamed on defunding, Herbold added.
Seattle is better off without officers who are leaving because they don’t like to see advocates pressing City Hall for more police accountability, Cházaro said. Separations have been climbing since 2010, partly because many officers hired in the 1990s are retiring.
For Fisher, the department’s record 225 days last year on priority call status indicate “how stretched thin the resources were.” For Cházaro and Herbold, however, the tally speaks to a long-term trend and a smart strategy.
The department recorded an increase in priority status days not only in 2020, but also in the three previous years, even as its budget grew. Residents can now report many crimes online and as community solutions scale up, there will be less need for officers to handle lower-priority calls, Herbold said.
Meanwhile, police officials have overstated their staffing problems, Cházaro said. They had 563 officers assigned to precinct-based 911-response work last April, before the protests, and 578 this March – more than the 538 officers they had assigned to 911 work in August 2019, council records show.
That’s partly because interim Chief Adrian Diaz moved about 100 officers from detective and specialty units to protest duty and 911 calls in September in an attempt to drive down response times. Fisher called the moves a band-aid fix that involved disbanding community-policing and anti-crime teams.
A true solution is “only going to come through new hires,” he said.
Granular data on the department’s operations is hard to come by. Police officials declined to provide a breakdown showing the number of officers who worked each precinct shift last year, citing operational concerns.
Instead, the department provided data on hours worked each week in relation to its own staffing goals. But the data doesn’t bolster the department’s argument that staffing challenges caused response times to soar, according to a Seattle Times analysis: Patrol staffing exceeded the department’s minimum levels through the summer’s protests, as response times peaked, and only fell below the minimum levels in the fall, as response times shrank.
There are some factors that can’t be quantified, one veteran patrol officer said, mentioning low morale among police in a tough political climate.
“It has chilling effect,” said the officer, who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the media.
During last year’s increase in response times, the officer said he and three other officers were dispatched to a drunk driver’s car crash.
“I pretty much handled the whole thing,” he said. “I just needed them there while I put on the cuffs.”
After they returned to the precinct, the officer handled most of the paperwork while the other officers effectively “did nothing” for several hours, but technically were still tied up with the call and not available for other calls, he said.
“That’s the attitude with a lot of the newer guys now, because it’s easier to avoid conflict” with the public, the officer said.
The officer added that two younger colleagues recently asked “for advice of whether or not they should stay here with all the defunding talk going on.
“They get the feeling they aren’t wanted here” by city leaders, he said. “And that’s not encouraging [them] to be active and go out and do their job.”
Cházaro also sees politics at play, suggesting the perception of a staffing crisis could give SPOG leverage in upcoming contract negotiations.
In the short term, Herbold hopes to broker a compromise at Tuesday’s committee meeting. Under her proposal, the council would cut about $3 million. “I want to find some middle ground,” she said.
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