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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane Police Department temporarily eliminates traffic unit due to staffing shortages

High Drive is pictured Friday, Sept. 4, 2020 near 20th Avenue as a police traffic unit waits nearby.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

The Spokane Police Department plans to temporarily eliminate its traffic unit later this month due to staffing shortages.

Eliminating the traffic unit doesn’t mean officers will forego traffic stops, Chief Craig Meidl said. Patrol officers will continue stopping and citing people for traffic infractions.

The change also won’t impact the department’s ability to investigate crimes such as vehicular assault or homicide, Meidl said. Traffic investigators at SPD are members of the investigative unit and won’t be affected.

The shift, expected to start in mid-September, comes as the department has been calling in off-duty officers and having officers work into the next shift to meet minimum staffing levels, Meidl said.

“You can’t do that indefinitely,” Meidl said.

Meidl set out to find a solution that would allow the department to continue prioritizing its response to calls in progress and investigations.

He looked at reducing the number of shifts from four to three, he said. But that would require a new “bid” for shift assignments, which Meidl hoped to avoid because of the schedule disruption it would cause officers and their families.

Moving officers from a specialty unit to general patrol was a better solution, and one that was used during staffing shortages in the early 2000s, Meidl said.

There are 10 people assigned to the traffic unit: five traffic officers, two commercial vehicle inspection officers, two DUI officers and one photo red officer.

The five traffic officers will move to a general patrol function, while the five more specialized officers will remain in their current roles, Meidl said.

Meidl hopes to reevaluate the situation at the end of the year and consider reducing the number of shifts, if needed.

Significantly understaffed

Currently, the department has the budget to employ 356 officers but only has 346, leaving 10 vacancies. On top of those vacancies, there are 19 officers in training and eight who are out on vacation or medical leave as part of their transition out of the department.

In total, there are 37 positions that the department cannot use, Meidl said. Many of those open positions are specialized, including behavioral health, public information , K9 and neighborhood resource roles.

Back in 2019, Meidl said he began to hear from colleagues across the state saying they were struggling to hire officers, but problems didn’t start for SPD until 2020. That same year, the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs launched the ”Wear the Badge Washington” campaign in hopes of enticing new people to the field.

At about the same time, officers began taking earlier retirements, Meidl said. In the state of Washington, officers can retire with a penalty when they are 50 if they have 20 years of service. They can retire without penalty at 53 with 5 years of service.

Historically, Meidl said, many officers would wait until they were 55 or older to retire, but recently officers have started retiring in their early 50s, sometimes taking jobs in the civilian world, Meidl said.

To fill those positions, Meidl had hoped to use a mix of lateral officers, hired from other agencies, and new hires who would go through the Basic Law Enforcement Academy.

The number of new applicants has dwindled, Meidl said. To fill the department’s 10 vacancies, Meidl said they would need upwards of 100 applicants, but currently only have 48.

Lateral officers have also been hard to hire, Meidl said. Recently the department has lost two candidates to agencies in Idaho, he said.

With a slew of new police reform laws in Washington, Meidl said officers are looking to work in states with less regulation such as Montana and Idaho.

Agencies in North Idaho say they have experienced some staffing issues like many industries right now, but those issues are nowhere near as extreme as what Meidl described.

The Coeur d’Alene Police Department recently hired seven officers and is close to being fully staffed, said Sgt. Jared Reneau.

“We don’t have to go through some of the challenges that other agencies have,” Reneau said. “We have an amazing community to work for and I think that information gets out to other agencies.”

Similar to other agencies, Reneau said entry level applicants have gone down, but lateral officer applications have gone up.

There are no patrol officer vacancies at the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office, said Lt. Ryan Higgins. Staffing issues are persistent, however, in other areas of the sheriff’s office including the dispatch center and jail, Higgins said.

Both Higgins and Reneau said several potential new hires have turned down jobs due to difficulties finding housing in area. Coeur d’Alene and Spokane are currently among the nation’s top 10 hottest housing markets.

Meidl cites ‘anti-police rhetoric’ as part of the problem

When it comes to the reason behind the hiring struggles, Meidl noted many industries nationwide have had problems staying fully staffed.

In part, Meidl blames the hiring difficulties on the “anti-police rhetoric” that he said has demonized law enforcement based on the actions of a few bad apples like former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, who was convicted of killing George Floyd earlier this year.

“There’s a sense that law enforcement is being painted with a broad brush based on these outliers,” Meidl said. “What we see every day is the hundreds of calls that even just in the City of Spokane … where they do an absolutely amazing job with their de-escalation, their patience, their compassion, their kindness.”

In recent years, SPD has had a few of its officers charged with crimes, including Sgt. Gordon Ennis, who was convicted in 2018 of sexually assaulting a fellow officer, and officer Nathan Nash, who is awaiting trial on multiple counts of rape for allegedly assaulting domestic violence victims he met on calls.

However, Meidl said he thinks those cases haven’t affected hiring at SPD. Instead, Meidl again pointed to the increasing criticism of law enforcement.

Officers in Spokane already experience high levels of stress just completing typical job functions, Meidl said. Officers don’t want over-the-top thanks, he added, they just don’t want to be demonized.

Retirements will likely continue to leave a staffing hole, with 80 officers currently eligible for retirement, Meidl said.

All things considered, Meidl worries it will be several years until the department is fully staffed again.

“I think a lot of it is going to have to do with what directions communities go in support of their law enforcement,” Meidl said.