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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane Valley faces slew of challenges in filling newly approved deputy positions

Spokane Valley Police Chief Dave Ellis, right, explains to elected officials and other dignitaries some of the features of the indoor shooting range at the new Spokane County Sheriff Regional Training Center Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023. Ellis and the Sheriff's Office hope to host state police academies at the facility in the future.   (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Spokane Valley is moving forward with plans to bolster the city’s police department, but it could take more than a year for new deputies to hit the streets.

The Spokane Valley City Council Tuesday unanimously approved a plan to divert city funds from street maintenance to the hiring of 10 new deputies and a civilian analyst at the Spokane Valley Police Department.

The positions are expected to cost about $2.125 million a year for salaries and benefits, which will be paid for by the city’s general fund. Vehicles and equipment for the deputies will cost an estimated $624,000, according to city staff, and will be paid for by a reserve of $1 million in federal COVID relief funds.

Now that funding has been identified to implement the first phase of recommendations called for by a Matrix Consulting Group report last fall, the city and the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office are turning their focus on recruitment efforts to find the bodies to fill the positions – and many more in the coming years.

The city hopes to add more than two dozen deputies to its force of 91, and three deputies for the staff of 37 shared with the Sheriff’s Office, which contracts with the city to provide law enforcement services.

Sean Walter, assistant chief of the Spokane Valley Police Department, said recruitment continues to be a challenge for the sheriff’s office, a trend that’s consistent with law enforcement agencies across the country.

“It’s not just a local issue, it’s a national issue,” Walter said. “Policing in general, it’s hard to find people that want to do this job, and finding viable applicants is an issue too.”

There are around 35 existing vacancies in the sheriff’s office, not including the 10 new positions approved by the city council, Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Cpl. Mark Gregory said. That figure has stayed relatively consistent in recent years, with the number of vacancies fluctuating between 20 to 40 at any given time.

That could present a challenge for Spokane Valley as it looks to fill the 10 new positions.

Spokane Valley Police Chief Dave Ellis told the city council earlier this month that candidates will be hired on a one-to-one ratio in tandem with the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, meaning that for every deputy hired for the Spokane Valley Police Department, one would be hired for the Sheriff’s Office.

“So if we hire two, one would go to Spokane Valley and one would go to Spokane County,” Ellis said.

In the past decade, the agency has hired one candidate for every 20 applications it received, Ellis said. Only about half of those new hires make it through the probationary phase to become fully fledged deputies.

The Sheriff’s Office hired a 10-year low of 17 new deputies last year, down from 38 hires in 2022.

The agency has put a lot of money into recruitment efforts to improve those hiring numbers and fill vacant positions. It has created a new website dedicated solely to attracting candidates, launched a signing bonus program for new hires and an extensive advertising campaign.

The Sheriff’s Office spends $80,000 a year on targeted social media advertising, and another $30,000 annually on billboards in Eastern Washington and North Idaho.

It has also devoted a $100,000 travel budget and a trailer to the recruiting team of 30 deputies who attend job fairs, hiring events for veterans transitioning to civilian life and public safety testing sites.

“When looking at how the applicants have come to find out about us, public safety testing is our No. 1 link,” Ellis told the council.

The agency’s arguably most important recruitment tool also functions as a retainment tool. Since 2021, the agency has offered new hires signing bonuses of $10,000 to candidates new to the profession and $25,000 to law enforcement officers transferring from another agency. Any Spokane Valley Police Department hires would be eligible for the signing bonus.

Ellis told the city council the Sheriff’s Office has lost an average of 25 deputies each year over the past decade, due to retirements, resignations, terminations or career changes. The bonus policy was changed last year to make staying with the agency more lucrative; lateral hires receive $10,000 up front and the remaining $15,000 incrementally, paycheck by paycheck, during their first two years in Spokane County.

The Spokane County Commission approved an update to the bonus policy this week that will now allow detention services employees to qualify for the bonus if they want to pursue a career with the Sheriff’s Office.

Undersheriff Kevin Richey told commissioners the change will help with recruitment and retainment, since seven to eight employees have left the jail for jobs at other law enforcement agencies where they qualified for signing bonuses, such as the Spokane Police Department.

In addition to recruitment and retention challenges, Spokane Valley will have to contend with long waits between when a candidate is hired and when they can hit the streets as a commissioned deputy. It could be more than a year before entry-level deputies are able to patrol on their own.

There is a three- to four-month wait for entry-level deputies hoping to attend one of Washington’s police academies, which takes about five months to complete, Ellis said. After receiving their certification, entry-level deputies then spend six weeks doing agency-specific training, before spending three to four months in the field with a commissioned deputy.

The timeline for lateral hires is much shorter, with most being able to be on patrol within six months. Ellis said the agency is working to find ways to shorten the hiring process to get deputies on the beat sooner.

The state could help speed up that timeline by offering more police academy sessions, especially in Eastern Washington, Walter said. It can be hard for a new hire to uproot temporarily to attend a police academy on the other side of the Cascades.

“The state is always backlogged for academies,” Walter said. “So there could be times when officers are waiting just to get into it, which is wasting time.”

Walter said the agency is working with the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission to host some of the academies at the county’s $41 million state-of-the-art training center on the West Plains.

“If we can get more academies up and running, they can get trained faster and get on the street faster,” Walter said.