Spokane County has escalated the bidding war for police officers.
On Tuesday, the Spokane County commissioners approved Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich’s request to raise hiring bonuses from $15,000 to $25,000. The maximum bonus is reserved for laterals – experienced deputies leaving other agencies. Entry-level hires will get $10,000.
The bigger bonuses won’t increase the Sheriff’s Office budget, Knezovich said, because the agency is saving money by being understaffed. Knezovich only needed approval because the commissioners had to amend the county’s bonus policy.
The Sheriff’s Office isn’t the only short-handed law enforcement agency going to unprecedented lengths to fill its ranks.
Departments have competed for a limited pool of candidates for the last few years. The trend appeared to change in 2021 when applications for the Sheriff’s Office and Spokane Police Department spiked, but Knezovich said he is still worried good candidates are scarce and interest in the law enforcement profession has tanked.
Public opinion of police has suffered after highly publicized police killings of Black people, including George Floyd’s murder in 2020. It’s also a difficult hiring market for employers regardless of industry or sector.
During the commissioners’ March 1 meeting, Knezovich said the Sheriff’s Office needs to offer big bonuses to stay competitive. He noted other agencies, such as the Seattle Police Department, are offering similar bonuses.
Community safety will suffer if the Sheriff’s Office lets staffing levels fall too low, Knezovich said.
He said he needs to hire 50 deputies. Hiring 50 in 2022 isn’t feasible, so he’s aiming for 35.
“Without getting to 35, we cannot maintain our service levels,” he said. “That’s how bad this is. Thirty five is the bottom line.”
Bonuses and billboards
Staff shortages at the Sheriff’s Office aren’t new. Knezovich began ramping up advertising efforts last year.
Bumping up hiring bonuses was the first step. In February, the Sheriff’s Office got permission to offer laterals $15,000 and new hires $5,000.
Then came the ad campaign.
Starting last spring, the Sheriff’s Office bought billboards in Denver, Portland, the Seattle area, North Idaho and Austin, Texas, hoping to entice people with the $15,000 bonus. With the exception of North Idaho, Knezovich said he was strategically buying billboards in cities where public officials hadn’t supported their officers.
In October, the Sheriff’s Office released a video ad, highlighting that the agency didn’t have a COVID-19 vaccine requirement. The video came out shortly after dozens of Washington State Patrol troopers lost their jobs for failing to comply with Gov. Jay Inslee’s vaccine mandate.
Next, the Sheriff’s Office spent $12,500 for two days of electronic billboard space in New York City’s Times Square. Those billboards went up in early November, right after more than 30 New York Police Department officers were put on leave for failing to get vaccinated, although Knezovich had said months earlier he was looking at buying East Coast billboards.
Has spending big paid off?
Billboards and bonuses helped the Sheriff’s Office have one of its best recruiting years on record in 2021, Knezovich said.
The agency hired 30 new deputies out of 758 applicants.
“The bulk of those individuals for one reason or another did not meet our standards,” Knezovich said. “My job is to make sure that we’re hiring the best of the best.”
Last spring, the Sheriff’s Office had 40 vacancies out of 227 authorized positions. By fall, the agency had hired more deputies and improved to 20 vacancies.
Of the 30 new hires, 15 were entry-level deputies and 15 were laterals.
None of the new hires came from Denver, Portland, New York or Austin.
No one from Denver or Austin applied, although Knezovich noted his agency bought Colorado billboards outside of Denver and six Colorado officers submitted applications.
One Portland Police Bureau officer applied, as did a few from Multnomah County and Clackamas County, which is near Portland. The Sheriff’s Office received four applications from New York Police Department officers.
More than half of the new hires were from Washington and Idaho.
Twelve came from the Inland Northwest, five from Western or Central Washington, nine from California – the Sheriff’s Office plans to buy billboards this year in Los Angeles and San Diego – and one each from Montana, South Carolina, Maryland and Virginia.
Knezovich said the national campaign had value even if it didn’t directly lead to hires from Denver, Portland, New York and Austin.
The billboards were unusual and generated media coverage not only in their home cities, but in Spokane. The Times Square billboards had an especially large reach.
Media outlets across the country ran the story – albeit in part because the ads initially misspelled Washington as “Washinton” – and Knezovich landed interviews on CNN and Fox News.
All of that free media attention made the billboards worth far more than they cost, Knezovich said, emphasizing that he got applications from all over America.
Overall, the Sheriff’s Office spent about $160,000 on advertising in 2021, with billboards making up the largest percentage of that cost.
Despite having a good hiring year, Knezovich said his staffing shortage is just as dire as it was a year ago.
His department is now authorized to have 248 deputies. That theoretically marks a return to pre-Great Recession staffing levels, but it also means the Sheriff’s Office needs to find even more deputies than before.
And law enforcement agencies aren’t only competing to steal each other’s officers. They’re struggling to retain their own.
The Sheriff’s Office has lost eight deputies in the last two months, Knezovich said. One of them quit and accepted a hiring bonus to become a trucker.
“He was one of our better deputies,” Knezovich said. “It’s challenging and it’s kind of sad to see.”
Being short-staffed has consequences, Knezovich told the commissioners.
“We’re pushing a lot of overtime to the point where our employees aren’t answering phone calls anymore,” he said, adding in an interview that the county might have to start paying double for overtime instead of time-and-a-half.
Chronic exhaustion isn’t good for deputies or the community, Knezovich said. Burnout makes law enforcement officers worse.
“Statistically, it’s proven that health issues, use of force issues and mental strain on deputies that are working on a continual basis is not all that great for the county,” he said.
If the county wants good deputies, and enough of them, it’s going to have to pay, Knezovich said. He said he believes big bonuses are essential.
“If we’re going to attract quality people, it’s going to be pricey,” he said. “We have to be more competitive than we have ever been.”
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