Councilmember Sara Nelson outsmarts the Seattle Department of Human Services
Councilmember Sara Nelson outsmarts the Seattle Department of Human Services. Very sigma. Seattle Channel screenshot

While others waited for the city to issue a report on the effectiveness of hiring incentives, Councilmember Sara Nelson put forward a resolution declaring the council’s intent to lift a budget proviso so that the Seattle Police Department could start offering signing bonuses to cops again. Had she waited for the report, she would have read that the city is not sure that these programs actually work to draw more officers.

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Over the past two years, over 300 cops at SPD have turned in their badges. Many city leaders blame this ongoing hemorrhaging for the city’s public safety issues. At the end of last year, former Mayor Jenny Durkan issued an executive order to allow SPD to offer hiring incentives of $10,000 for new hires and $25,000 for lateral hires. The council approved bonuses until the end of 2021, but Durkan went behind its back and told SPD to give out bonuses beyond the cutoff. SPD advertised unauthorized hiring incentives for a month before anyone noticed and put it to a stop. Ultimately, the council retroactively allowed the department to fulfill its promise to five new cops who applied during that short period.

Despite the controversy, many council members remain open to these bonuses. After all, as Councilmember Lisa Herbold reminded the public in a March 22 episode of City Inside/Out, the council fully funded SPD’s plan to hire 125 new officers. That's more officers than SPD has ever hired before, and it is the largest number that the department said it could hire.

“So when people tell us to hire more police, we're working on hiring more police,” Herbold said.

Herbold has remained amenable to hiring incentives since Durkan first sent her executive order. However, Herbold wanted to see which other departments might need similar hiring programs due to the so-called “Great Resignation.” Current job trends aside, the public workforce as a whole has struggled with retention, especially since the onset of the pandemic, and so she asked the Seattle Department of Human Resources (SDHR) to do a report to answer her question.

The report came back at the end of last week, and it found that the city struggles to hire (in no particular order) carpenters, plumbers, truck drivers, recreation attendants, IT programmers, civil engineers, HVAC technicians, “skilled” trades workers, cashiers, electrical inspectors, veterinarians, public safety auditors, 911 dispatchers, and, of course, police officers.

The report did not concretely determine whether hiring incentives would solve the problem. In one case, both SPD and the Community Safety and Communications Center (CSCC) offered hiring incentives during a two-month period last year. While SPD did not hire more officers than usual, more candidates entered the hiring process for jobs at the CSCC. In light of those findings, Herbold sent SDHR some follow-up questions and was not ready to make a call on the subject in the March 29 council briefing.

But Nelson didn’t even wait for the SDHR’s inconclusive findings, and instead announced her resolution days before the twice-delayed report she called a “two-page memo.” During Herbold’s briefing, Nelson said hiring data, especially over a brief two-month period, may not be the best way to test if hiring incentives work because SPD’s hiring process takes months. She reminded the council that Interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz said that in January more prospective cops signed up for testing to join the force than ever in the department’s history. That number dropped to just six in March, which was after the incentives ended.

Whether hiring bonuses work or not, in a March 23 press release Nelson said Seattle needed a staffing incentive program to compete with other cities in the region. Big names backed her up: Council President Debora Juarez, the SPD police chief, and the founder of Mothers for Police Accountability.

But for some of her council colleagues the resolution might be a tough sell.

One of her most likely supporters, Councilmember Alex Pedersen, who never cracked under the defund movement’s pressure, may find himself in a moral quandary. By all accounts, Pedersen wants to fund cops, but he also hates resolutions. In fact, he and Nelson both voted no on a resolution to support unionization efforts at Starbucks based on their deeply held belief that the council shouldn’t virtue-signal with resolutions, which typically have no actual power. Right now, no one can speak to the specifics of the legislation, so, according to a spokesperson for the council, it’s not clear whether Nelson’s resolution will meet her and Pedersen’s standards. I wrote to Pedersen’s office and I will update if they provide comment.

On the other side of the spectrum, Councilmember Tammy Morales said in the March 22 episode of City Inside/Out that the department’s retention issues may be an issue of management rather than salary. After all, Seattle pays cops better than almost anywhere else.

For Morales, and perhaps for other staunch progressives on the council, our precious public dollars would be better spent on “changing the material conditions that could make our neighbors feel safer. And actually be safer.”