In the last installment of this series on the Mayor’s proposed budget, we present a deep dive on the Seattle Police Department’s budget: a large, complex and controversial topic.
Before we dive into the deep end of the pool, here is some important context on SPD’s budget worth remembering:
- The vast majority of SPD’s budget is headcount-related expenses: compensation, overtime, benefits, and provisioning basic equipment and supplies. There are no big piles of money sitting around that are spent on militarized equipment, fancy facilities, or other splurges. Corollary: there is one big lever you can adjust in order to change SPD’s budget: its headcount.
- From 2014 to 2018, SPD officers worked without a contract and saw no salary increases. In late 2018 a new contract was signed, and (substantial) retroactive raises were given to officers.
- From time to time SPD has reorganized some of its internal operations, splitting out or consolidating groups within the organization. Largely this hasn’t affected employees’ jobs or the department’s bottom line, but it does introduce noise into our ability to track changes in budget expenditures over time.
- Over the course of 2021 the City Council passed ordinances transferring two units out of SPD: the 911 call center (140 employees) and the Parking Enforcement Officers (120 employees). This is reflected in the Mayor’s 2022 proposed budget as changes from the adopted 2021 budget: 260 fewer employees in SPD, and a corresponding transfer out of about $13.2 million in funding.
- City department budgets are expressed as two numbers: a dollar figure, and a headcount number. The headcount number is more accurately be described as “position authority,” meaning that it is the ceiling on the number of employees the department is allowed to hire. But there’s a catch: a department can’t hire someone if they don’t have the dollars in their budget to pay them. Departments are given the budget to pay all the people they already have hired at the beginning of the year; if they have additional position authority above that to hire more people, then generally they are given a portion of a full year’s salary for each position, pro-rated based upon how quickly the position is expected to be filled. So for example a department may have 6 months’ salary funding for a person expected to start on July 1. But because of the high attrition in SPD (and the long recruitment and training pipeline for bringing new officers onto the force) SPD has had the opposite issue: its filled headcount has shrunk over both 2020 and 2021, and it ended each year substantially below its budgeted position authority. To the extent that this has led to salary savings, the City Council has clawed back some of that money — after prolonged arguments with the Mayor and Chief of Police on how those funds should best be spent.
The Mayor’s proposed 2022 budget for SPD is $365.4 million, with a position authority of 1,766. The funding is essentially flat from 2021 ($363.0 million); the headcount is a substantial drop from 2021 (2,020 FTEs) representing the transfer out of the 260 positions from the Parking Enforcement unit and the 911 call center, and the addition of six Community Service Officers (plus a few other one-off changes, such as a new video analyst for the OPA).
Even though officer attrition has remained high, the SPD budget does not propose to reduce position authority further; though according to the department its staffing model assumes that 130 positions will go unfilled. Accordingly, it expects approximately $19 million in salary savings for 2022 compared to the original 2021 SPD budget. Combined with the money transferred out for the PEOs and 911 call center, that’s a reduction of about $32 million.
So then, you may be asking, how did the department’s total budget end up flat? It’s a good question, with a multi-part answer. The proposed budget details a number of expense increases for the department, including some accounting changes, inflationary increases for some services like HR and IT that are provided centrally by the city but charged back to departments, and cost of living increases for some personnel benefits like healthcare. Plus, the Mayor’s budget proposes how the $19 million of salary savings should be spent, with $3.65 million going to community-based public safety alternatives and a larger chunk to be spent within SPD on ongoing technology and other projects to improve efficiency. The Mayor is also proposing to spend $1 million on reinstating a hiring bonus program for officers to try to boost recruiting, an appropriation which will no doubt be controversial with the Council.
A year ago, with SPD staffing levels well below its position authority, the City Council reduced the department’s budgeted position authority for 2021 by 140 FTEs to match its actual staffing plan (an act known as “abrogating positions”). Rather than disperse the cuts across divisions within SPD, however, the Council took all 140 positions out of the Patrol division. Since the Council has the final word on the budget, that’s how it was entered into the city’s accounting systems, and one unit in particular, Patrol Operations, ended up with a position authority of -69 on the books. However, Chief Diaz had other plans: he has prioritized maintaining Patrol staffing levels in order to try to meet 911 response time targets, at the cost of headcount in other divisions. But the Mayor’s proposed 2022 budget never revisited SPD’s position authorities in order to distribute the Council’s 140-FTE cut around to reflect reality; the 2022 “budget book” still lists Patrol Operations with a budget authority of -69. Last week the City Budget Office acknowledged the error, and earlier this week it gave SCC Insight updated numbers, revealing important information about how Chief Diaz intends to deploy his employees to bolster Patrol staffing even as he continues to deal with high attrition. The numbers and charts below reflect the corrected figures.
Generally speaking, SPD’s budget growth (in inflation-adjusted dollars) has been on pace with the city’s overall “general fund” budget growth over the past twenty years: sometimes a little higher, sometimes a little lower, a flat period between 2014 and 2018 when the SPD officers were working without a contract, followed by a big spike in 2019 with the new contract and the retroactive raises. Then a big drop last year.
The SPD budget growth has outpaced Seattle’s population growth over the same period, with most of the gains in the 2000’s followed by about an even pace in the 2010’s (again partly explained by the four years without a contract) and then the spike in 2019.
However, SPD’s headcount growth has not kept pace with the city’s population growth.
Put together, the story becomes clear: SPD officers have a strong union (SPOG) that negotiates hefty compensation packages. SPD’s budget keeps growing mainly because compensation is increasing faster than inflation.
And just to hammer the point home, here’s a chart of SPD’s budget per employee.
(to be clear, a big part of the spike in 2022 in this chart is because the Parking Enforcement Officers and 911 call center employees were transferred out of the department; they represent 260 employees on the low end of SPD’s pay scale, and their exit from the department left a higher average salary among the remaining employees)
There are four main divisions within the Police Department: operations, patrol, investigations, and administration. The administration division hasn’t been affected much by the past two years’ machinations, but the other three have seen some significant impacts. Looking at headcount shows the overall drop in the past two years (though this is position authority, not butts-in-seats, so it understates the attrition), including the transfers out of the department (the 911 call center and PEOs were in the Operations division).
The Investigations division grew substantially — and artificially — in 2020 when a number of smaller specialized investigative units were consolidated together; it didn’t result in a net increase in investigative staff at the time. But that masks the substantial cut to investigative teams since then; it looks on paper like the division is back to its 2019 staffing level, but in truth SPD’s total investigative capacity now is much smaller than it was pe-consolidation.
Despite Diaz’s efforts, he has not been able to sustain patrol staffing in the precincts, which has been in slow decline since 2019. The department had another bout of high attrition during and immediately following the fights over ratifying the SPOG contract in late 2018.
Interestingly, Diaz has managed to grow patrol staffing in only one precinct: the South. Whether that is a good or bad thing depends on your perspective, as South Seattle is one of the areas of the city where SPD has been accused of over-policing — or at least over-policing small crimes.
Looking at the corresponding dollar budgets, we see that the Patrol division is getting more money; the “budget book” doesn’t explain why, but it is likely a combination of the cost-increase factors mentioned above, Diaz moving some headcount over, and overtime to compensate for short-staffing.
Investigations, on the other hand, is seeing severe budget cuts, most notably to the criminal investigations team. The violent crimes unit is also taking a hit, from a high of 79 FTEs in 2020 down to a proposed 64 next year. One might raise an eyebrow at that, given the recent spike in violent crimes across the city. And again, this overestimates the staffing since these are “funding authority” numbers, not filled positions; according to SPD the proposed funding reductions for Investigations mean that 25 positions in the Investigations division (out of 306 total) are without funding.
On Friday when the City Council has its “issue identification” discussion for SPD, here are several topics they will likely focus on:
- The uses of the salary savings. The Councilmembers will like that $3.6 million has been transferred out to pay for community-based alternatives to policing, but they will want more data on the proposed uses of the other $15 million of estimated salary savings, and they will almost certainly have ideas on other ways to spend it.
- Deeper cuts. Councilmember Sawant will push for shrinking the department further to meet the “Defund by 50%” goal, perhaps not allowing the department to hire at all next year. It’s unlikely that she will get majority support from the Council — at least not until civilian and community-based alternatives are up and running. But until then there will be a constant tug-of-war between those on the Council who want to take money away from SPD now to spin up the alternatives, and those who prefer to wait to downsize the department until the alternatives are real.
- Abrogating more positions. This is more symbolic than anything, but don’t be surprised if the Council abrogates more of SPD’s “position authority” to reflect actual staffing levels — regardless of whether the department has the money to fill the positions. A less-visible hazard concerns how much attention the Council pays to where the headcount is taken from, since over the past few years it has reshaped SPD’s budget by creating separate line-items that allow it to more effectively micro-manage the department’s staffing and spending. Diaz is trying to maintain patrol staffing over other police functions; if the Council has other priorities, it may decide to tie his hands. That might, in turn, provoke a mini-Constitutional-crisis in Seattle city government, as the City Charter is clear that the Chief of Police has sole authority in deciding how to deploy the police force.
- Hiring bonuses. The $1 million that Mayor Durkan has proposed for hiring bonuses for new recruits and “lateral transfers” from other law enforcement agencies will almost certainly draw criticism beyond the obvious complaints from Sawant. It will be a key test for the Councilmembers as they fence-sit between their commitment to eventually downsize the police department and dealing with the high attrition, caused in part by their own comments, that has left SPD and the city on the brink of a full-fledged staffing crisis.
- SPD’s staffing plan. On paper, the department says that it plans to hire 125 officers while keeping attrition to 90 next year, for a net gain of 35 officers. It knows something of its ability to hire, since it has data on the number of recruits in the pipeline already — though it doesn’t know how many will exit early. 125 new hires, however, is a very ambitious goal, one that it has rarely met. To its credit, SPD has taken steps to achieve it, including outsourcing background checks to speed the hiring process (and free up its own staff) and potentially planning for its own dedicated class at the state law enforcement academy. On the other hand, officer attrition is unpredictable and depends on many factors outside the department’s hands, including progress on a new SPOG contract (the officers are once again working without a contract at the moment) and the attitude toward SPD that the city’s elected officials take — and we will see what happens with the upcoming election. Nevertheless, Councilmembers have already expressed some skepticism of SPD’s staffing plan; however, as with last year they will likely fully fund it if for no other reason than to try to inoculate themselves from accusations that they don’t support the city’s police officers.
- Transferring other groups out of SPD. Top of the list for other units to transfer to other departments — the low-hanging fruit for downsizing the police department — is the Community Service Officers (CSOs). Councilmembers have already expressed interest in moving them to the newly-formed, civilian-headed Community Safety and Communications Center (CSCC). But there’s one problem: the CSOs have made it clear that they want to stay in SPD. We’ll see if any of the Councilmembers push for the move anyway.
I hope you found this article valuable. If you did, please take a moment to make a contribution to support my ongoing work. Thanks!