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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

How Seattle police contract could affect recruiting, budget, accountability

Members of Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) listen to a labor speaker, top left, supporting the contract, before the City Council's vote on the city's proposed contract with SPOG, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018, in Seattle.    (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times/TNS)
By David Kroman The Seattle Times

SEATTLE —As Seattle has struggled to attract and retain police officers, officials in City Hall have emphasized one missing piece they believe could make a significant difference: a contract between the city and the Seattle Police Officers Guild.

The two parties reached a tentative agreement over the weekend, a milestone in negotiations that comes nearly three years after the last contract expired. Details haven’t been disclosed, and union members still need to vote it up or down, which could take days or weeks. Then, the Seattle City Council would vote whether to ratify it.

Whatever’s contained in the contract must satisfy a federal judge’s demands for accountability, the police force’s demands for a raise and City Hall’s demands for a stronger recruitment tool.

Since 2018, when the last contract was signed, Seattle officers have gone from receiving the highest entry-level pay in the state to the 29th — nearly $20,000 less than what new cops make in Redmond and below places like Mount Vernon, Sumner and Centralia.

The last contract catapulted Seattle police to be some of the highest paid on the West Coast. For this contract to do the same, entry level jobs would need to jump from $83,000 to at least $101,000, or a more than 20% bump.

Mayor Bruce Harrell and the new Seattle City Council have tied their legacies to growing the Seattle Police Department, which they say is key to wrapping their arms around public safety concerns in the city.

In 2019, the department had roughly 1,300 deployable officers. As of January, that’s down to just over 900. In that period, more than 700 officers left the department. At the same time, applications dipped from more than 3,000 in 2019 to fewer than 2,000 last year.

Harrell has cautioned that reversing that trend isn’t a switch to be flipped. “If recruiting officers and retaining officers were easy, it would be done by now,” Harrell said in an interview this year.

Absent a new contract, efforts to bolster recruitment have so far been an exercise in branding and procedure.

The city has budgeted millions to pay the marketing firm Capacino Fujikado, a Seattle-based company that has run campaigns for the Mariners, Sound Transit, Alaska Airlines and the Downtown Seattle Association, to place ads on social media locally and as far away as Houston for the department.

Elected officials have also sought ways to hasten the bureaucracy of recruitment, by shortening the period between application and hiring. Members of the Seattle City Council and mayor’s office have shown interest in switching entry-level tests, from one that sees an average of 68% of applicants pass to one used by a greater number of local departments that sees a 90% pass rate.

The city has paid nearly $300,000 in signing bonuses to new recruits, though it’s unclear how much of a difference that has made. A February analysis of the signing bonuses concluded “the hiring incentive is compelling to some applicants yet does not have as strong an effect as salary and benefits.”

The size of the raises for Seattle officers will have implications for the city’s budget. The City Council is set to ratify contracts with a majority of the city’s other unions Tuesday, which will deepen the city’s deficit next year from $230 million to $240 million.

Jamie Housen, spokesperson for Harrell, said he’s not able to share financial details at this time, such as how much the city has held in reserve in anticipation of a contract.

When the previous contract was made public in 2018, advocates for police reform raised alarms that it rolled back previously passed legislation that bolstered accountability. Those concerns were echoed by the federal judge, James Robart, overseeing Seattle’s consent decree mandating reform.

Despite those concerns, the City Council ratified the contract.

In a statement Monday, Seattle’s civilian Community Police Commission said the collective bargaining agreement “shouldn’t protect police officers from being held accountable for their actions,” urging the city to push for the accountability measures first passed in 2017 to be put into place.

“Until state law protects accountability by limiting police unions’ ability to bargain for how their members will be held accountable for misconduct, the city should refuse to approve a contract with SPOG that omits these critical accountability measures,” chairs the Rev. Patricia Hunter, Joel Merkel and the Rev. Harriett Walden said.