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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Survey of SPD officers, staff, reveals low morale stemming from staffing levels and support

A group of Spokane Police Department officers on bikes block traffic while maintaining distance between themselves and protesters who were calling for defunding the police and supporting the Black Lives Matter movement occurs in downtown Spokane on Sunday.   (Libby Kamrowski/The Spokesman-Review)

Low morale at the Spokane Police Department caused in part by inconsistent leadership and understaffing has become a crisis, according to a report by officers and support staff released late last month.

Morale has been a building problem at the department for years, said Detective Dave Dunkin, president of the Spokane Police Guild.

“It’s just kind of always there under the surface,” Dunkin said.

There’s plenty of blame to go around, Dunkin said, including the department leadership, Spokane City Council, the mayor’s office, broad cultural shifts and the officers themselves.

Chief Craig Meidl put a large part of the blame on the city council, not only for lack of funding but for comments critical of police. Mayor Nadine Woodward echoed concerns about staffing level and city council support, while council president Breean Beggs said he has supported and will continue to support funding requests in many of the areas mentioned in the report.

How the report came about

Earlier this year when Meidl routinely attended roll call, Dunkin and others approached him about morale. Meidl has known morale was a problem for a while, especially over the past two years after an increased focus on police reform in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and nationwide protests, he said.

“We didn’t get here overnight,” Meidl said.

Following the meeting, Meidl asked that committees be set up to solicit staff feedback on morale issues.

President of the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, Holt Widhalm, led a committee of officers and support staff to get feedback from their co-workers and write the report.

The final report lists four main issues leading to significant morale problems in the department: lack of leadership, inadequate staffing, not valuing employees and lack of a culture of excellence.

The criticism

A lack of consistent leadership style and expectations has made it difficult for employees to know what’s expected of them, the report indicates. Supervisors are “ill-equipped” to handle the functions of their job and the separation between leadership and their employees is too great, according to the report.

“We don’t have poor leaders, there’s just no consistency and not a lot of follow-through,” Widhalm said.

The department is significantly understaffed, especially in the patrol division, making it common for officers on one shift to be held over for part of another shift, according to the report.

During one week in May, there were 49 requests to fill patrol vacancies needed to meet the minimum staffing requirements, the report indicates.

A significant amount of overtime is required for large community events, weekend bar patrol, holidays, parades and concerts.

A large portion of the department is not assigned to patrol but to other specialty units such as investigations, traffic or neighborhood resource work.

Widhalm called the number of officers at the department “vastly inadequate.”

As of Sunday, the department employs 346 of the 356 officers for which it’s budgeted, but only 306 of those officers are actually available to work – the rest are in training or on various types of leave, said Julie Humphreys a department spokeswoman.

A significant amount of overtime leads to burnout and officers responding to calls exhausted, the report says. More time at work also exacerbates other health risks associated with the job and could lead to higher rates of depression, suicide or other mental health issues, the report indicates.

Law enforcement agencies nationwide are struggling to staff their departments, said Timothy Freesmeyer, a researcher and consultant who studies staffing needs at law enforcement agencies nationwide, including in a 2017 report on SPD. Agencies have been struggling to hire and retain staff at increasing rates over the last five to 10 years, Freesmeyer said.

A June 2021 study into police staffing showed law enforcement agencies are filling 93% of their authorized positions, according to data from Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit think tank. Agencies similar in size to SPD saw a decrease in hiring rates in 2021 over 2020 while citing an increase in resignation and retirement rates.

Response times for many noncritical incidents are long, leading to citizens being angry and upset with officers when they do finally arrive, the report says.

Other areas of the department are understaffed as well, leading to other noncommissioned staff like dispatchers, crime analysts and payroll employees also facing burnout, according to the report.

Officers don’t have adequate equipment, especially patrol cars, the report indicates. Most patrol officers would prefer take-home cars, which currently aren’t available to all officers, according to the report.

Office space is also an issue, with the current Public Safety Building being crowded and poorly maintained, the report says. The men’s locker room has mold and nonfunctioning faucets, and rarely has hot water, according to the report. The property storage facility has been overrun with bugs, the report adds.

Officers have been out of a union contract for years at a time, something that officers have come to expect, Dunkin said.

“That’s one of the major reasons that people are leaving, because they don’t feel the city cares about working with them to have a good career,” Widhalm said.

Dunkin, who negotiates the contract as president of the Spokane Police Guild, said the problem largely lies with the city administrator and Meidl, with whom he struggles for months at a time to get meetings.

“Is there a bigger way to tell your employees that you don’t value them at all?” Dunkin said. “I can’t even get these guys to meet with me.”

When the Spokane City Council voted down a proposed contract in 2020, meetings moved more quickly, Dunkin said, noting Beggs showed up to meetings well-prepared. The city finalized a five-year contract in March 2021, but more than four years of the contract were retroactive. The contract expired at the end of 2021. The union and the city have yet to agree on a contract in 2022.

The report also cited a lack of support from city leaders, who it said fail to “promote” the department in a “positive light.”

“Our staff really needs that support right now,” Widhalm said.

Proposed solutions

A large portion of the report is dedicated to proposed solutions to the issues raised by officers, something Widhalm said was to acknowledge the “hefty responsibility” staff has to support the department in making the changes they’re asking for.

An in-house leadership training program with more frequent instruction would help with consistency in leadership style and expectations, according to the report.

Hiring additional patrol officers would get the department closer to the national average for officers: 2.4 officers per 1,000 residents, according to the report and FBI data. Currently, Spokane has 1.55 officers per 1,000 residents, according to data provided by the department. Compared to agencies on the West Coast similar in size to Spokane, SPD is slightly below the average of 1.8 officers per 1,000 inhabitants, according to FBI data.

Widhalm also suggested the department focus first on patrol before filling roles on specialty units.

Keeping up to date on contract negotiations and not letting union contracts expire is an easy fix that would show city leadership cares, Dunkin said.

The report suggests increasing mental health supports, changing scheduled training to help officers get more sleep and physicals, specifically for law enforcement officers, to help medical professionals spot signs of health problems common in the high-stress job.

Take-home vehicles, the report argues, would save the department money in some areas and increase morale. A new and separate headquarters building would not only give officers pride in their work environment, but alleviate overcrowding and safety issues in their current facility, the report argues.

While report writers, like Widhalm, had many suggestions, they also acknowledge that their ideas would take significant funding from city council.

“We would like to see the support of the city council,” Widhalm said.

City council often looks at requests from the police department in extreme detail, more than they would for other city departments, Widhalm said.

“You’ve got to be critical of the department, any department,” Widhalm said. “There’s being critical and still wanting to have that open line of communication.”

The reaction

The report was released at the end of June and has since been reviewed by both city and department leadership. Both are supportive of many of the solutions proposed in the report, but quick to point fingers at who caused the morale and funding problems in the first place.

While Beggs doesn’t view the report as an independent study, he sees a lot of value in hearing from union members about what they think and recommend.

“To me, I love it when employees in the organization tell us what they think,” Beggs said. “I think it’s a really valuable statement.”

Beggs agrees with the “vast majority” of the working conditions listed in the report and thought the requests to fix them seem “pretty reasonable.”

The leadership training proposals were particularly exciting to Beggs, who said he would love to see funding requests for the program come to city council.

The city council has consistently increased funding for police officer positions, Beggs said, noting the council put a public safety levy on the ballot, which passed in 2019, despite opposition from then-Mayor David Condon. Beggs also noted earlier this year he pushed for the department to be able to hire ahead 10 positions to reduce wait times between officers leaving the department and their replacements being ready to take over.

Hiring more noncommissioned staff, like data analysts or mental health specialists, to do tasks that officers currently do is another idea Beggs hopes to push for in the near future.

The vehicle issue has been a hot-button topic in recent months, with the council purchasing 35 of the 64 vehicles requested by the department, then commissioning a study to evaluate both electric vehicle options and potential reforms to take-home vehicle and fleet rotation practices and polices.

The state’s Clean Energy Transformation Act has committed Washington to an electricity supply free of greenhouse gas emissions by 2045, making electric vehicles a future necessity.

Beggs said he’s committed to updating and upgrading the fleet once the study gives the council a clear direction.

Negotiating a long-term union contract is also a top priority for Beggs, he added.

While he is on board with many of the ideas in the report, Beggs said funding proposals have to come from the police department.

“It’s a bit of a dance, because if the administration doesn’t bring us a funding proposal, we can’t do anything with it,” Beggs said.

Those proposals, Beggs said, are often all-or-nothing, making it difficult to find a middle ground.

When Woodward attends roll call, she has heard similar concerns from officers, especially over the union contract.

Her biggest priority is funding additional officer positions. She plans to ask the city council for 60 new officers to get closer to the national officer per capita numbers. Woodward noted even if those positions were funded immediately, it would take years to actually hire and train the additional staff.

While Woodward said she’s also excited to see the results of the city council’s study, she is in favor of a take-home car program in general. She hopes the city council will consider using hybrid vehicles to get closer to the renewable energy goals and purchase vehicles more quickly.

Woodward said her administration is “very, very close” to an agreement with the guild on a union contract, and that she hadn’t heard anything about delays from her administration during this set of negotiations.

Meidl said there weren’t any surprises when he read the report because he had heard many of the issues.

When it comes to leadership training, Meidl is in favor of updating their program and plans to look into a recently created leadership training curriculum from the Washington Association of Sheriff’s and Police Chiefs.

The training is self-paced and could be used in conjunction with curriculum created by SPD, he said. He also hopes to increase the amount of leadership training officers get, making monthly training mandatory for sergeants and above.

Meidl agreed that the department is understaffed and said he plans to move people off specialty teams and into patrol early next year. He also agreed that Spokane needs more officers to keep up with population growth.

Low staffing impacts the number of crimes that can be investigated, Meidl added. Officers are increasingly declining to work overtime in favor of time off to recharge, which Meidl sees as a sign of burnout.

Vehicles are a large issue for Meidl, who said the city can’t keep kicking the problem down the road. If a large purchase of vehicles isn’t made in the near future, Meidl fears the department will have to double-up officers.

“If we can’t get the money for the vehicles that we’ve been asking for, for four years, the question is, how do we get money for these other things?” Meidl said.

Aside from the funding issue, Meidl said city council members have been unsupportive of the department. Meidl mentioned comments in the media by city council members during the 2020 protests, and then days later, the council’s proposal of law enforcement reforms.

“There’s an overwhelming feeling that in these conversations about either reform or police response or some of the misconduct you hear, judgment is formed and expressed publicly by some of the city council members without even giving the department an opportunity to provide a different perspective,” Meidl said.

The criticism of policing, Meidl said, comes with no acknowledgment for the dangerous and difficult things police do every day.

For union leadership, it’s frustrating that policing is always a political issue, Dunkin said.

“The chief and the mayor are not exempt from that,” he added.

While Meidl expressed frustration over city council comments, Dunkin said most officers are “indifferent” to what the city council says.

“We almost expect politicians to be like that,” Dunkin said. “That bothers him (Meidl), that doesn’t bother us. What bothers us is that we don’t have enough people to do the job.”

When it comes to not supporting police financially or vocally, Dunkin said there’s plenty of blame to go around.

“It’s too much politicking,” he said. “Everybody is just kind of using us as cheap political pawns.”

Read the full “Morale in the Spokane Police Department” report here:

Editor’s note: This story was updated on July 16, 2022, to correct the spelling of Detective Dave Dunkin’s name.