Seattle Police Department Will Try To Build On Record Hiring Year With Neighborhood Billboard Campaign

The Seattle Police Department, which has struggled in recent years to recruit and retain enough officers to significantly grow the number of cops on patrol, will try to build on strong 2019 results with a billboard campaign aimed at local neighborhoods, officials said Monday.

The department brought on a record 108 officers last year, and a record 39% were people of color, while 18% were women, Mayor Jenny Durkan said at a news conference with Police Chief Carmen Best and City Councilmember Lisa Herbold at Hing Hay Park in the Chinatown International District. The department has begun offering hiring bonuses of up to $15,000 for trained officers from other cities and up $7,500 for new recruits.

But the department needs to keep hiring at a rapid clip in order to grow the size of its officer ranks, because large numbers of cops are continuing to leave. Seattle has hired 679 officers since 2015, but 553 have retired or left for other reasons during that time, according to a council memo.

“We know we’re a big city with big city challenges, and we need a robust police department with officers committed to doing community policing,” Durkan said. “We’re making some progress.”

Seattle leaders are under pressure from many residents to bolster patrols and reduce response times in a city with a soaring population, a booming economy and streets where some people are grappling with homelessness, substance abuse disorders and behavioral health crises.

Yet many residents also are concerned about police misconduct, given that Seattle is still working to cement reforms mandated in 2012. The city’s cops elected a hard-line union president this month who’s vowed to counter progressive activists, and the union didn’t have a role in Monday’s event. The new president, Mike Solan, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The city had a dismal year for police recruitment and retention in 2018, when 41 more officers left than were hired. Even last year, 92 waved goodbye (including 45 retirements and 39 resignations), resulting in a net gain of 16.

Though the mayor and council budgeted enough money for 1,467 officers and recruits last year, up from 1,300 in 2012, Seattle had only 1,331 fully trained officers available.

The city hired 11 officers and had four leave last month. Police officials are scheduled to update the council’s public safety committee on recruitment and retention Tuesday. They expect to hire 104 by the end of the year.

Seattle pays new recruits $83,000 a year, Durkan spokeswoman Kelsey Nyland said in an email. No other Washington city pays that much, said Mike Fields, the police department’s human resources director.

Police departments across the country are struggling with staffing, Best said. Many baby boomers have retired and a number of Seattle officers have been poached by suburban cities offering bonuses, with some citing concerns about the city’s politics making their jobs harder.

“We have record-low unemployment in this region, so people have a lot of options on what career choices they can make,” Durkan said, also pointing to “heavy competition” for cops.

Seattle’s new “This is my neighborhood” campaign will use billboards to highlight 12 officers with strong community ties, the mayor said. The first billboard, at South Dearborn Street and Sixth Avenue, features Judinna Gulpan, a community-police team officer who was born in the Philippines, grew up in Southern California and worked in retail before joining the force.

“You don’t have to fit a certain mold to be a police officer,” Gulpan said.

The campaign will cost about $31,000, said Nyland, the Durkan spokeswoman. “The price of not letting people see people like them in their police department is much higher,” the mayor said.

Applicants will be asked how they learned the department was hiring, and responses will be used to measure the campaign’s value, Nyland said.

The mayor and council allocated $1.2 million in the police department’s 2020 budget to carry out a dozen recruitment and retention strategies developed by a work group last year.

Those strategies included recruiting cops from other city departments and allowing out-of-area applicants to take tests online. They didn’t include the “This is my neighborhood” billboard campaign, which Durkan said is meant to help Seattle hire more officers of color and women.

The police department doesn’t track how many officers live in Seattle, said Fields, the HR director. But he estimated less than half call the city home.

“Your residence isn’t going to be nearly as important as your character,” Best said. “You can be committed to and dedicated to a neighborhood and don’t have to reside in that neighborhood.”

The mayor and Herbold stood side by side Monday, with the council member expressing support for the billboard campaign.

They were on track to tangle in recent weeks over a program that sends people who commit low-level street crimes to social workers rather than jail, because the mayor initially indicated she would delay a $3 million allocation by the council until later this year, independent journalist Erica Barnett reported.

Durkan adjusted that stance on Friday, promising to sign a new contract for the widely acclaimed Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program soon and to include the council’s allocation right away.