The Seattle City Council pitched some ideas on Tuesday for how to retain and recruit Seattle Police Department (SPD) officers. Ideas included higher raises, providing child care, and allowing cops to take home their patrol cars. City Council President Sara Nelson, who has criticized the City in the past for its “unsustainable” spending, floated the idea of the housing subsidies for police officers. At a time when the City’s hiring freeze threatens summer camps for disabled youth, the city council's readiness to drain the general fund to perhaps marginally increase recruitment rates for police at the expense of all else raises serious questions about the budget priorities in a city facing a major budget shortfall, a housing crisis, and several other issues. 

At the meeting, Deputy Mayor Tim Burgess, SPD Chief Adrian Diaz, and members of the City’s human resources and recruitment teams presented the Council with an overview of the state of staffing, recruitment, and retention at the department. Diaz gave the same spiel as always, saying that SPD’s number of deployable officers has dropped by 375 in the last five years, sinking to its lowest number since 1991. No one mentioned that the number of major crimes reported in Seattle in 2022 is down by about 20,000 compared to 1991, but, whatever, let them continue to throw out that meaningless benchmark. 

As the cops and the council members pitched policy, they mentioned giving cops more money, allowing officers to drive their patrol cars on their personal time (which also likely means accessing the City’s free gas stations for City vehicles), education reimbursement, helping with child care, increasing hiring bonuses, and creating incentives for officers who speak a second language. Sounds nice. 

At one point in the discussion about competition with other departments, Nelson chimed in to ask about cities offering cops subsidized housing. Later in the meeting, Saka eagerly supported the idea.

If the idea here is that cops struggle to afford housing in Seattle, I'm not quite sure that holds. The presenters compared SPD wages to other departments, saying entry-level officers in Seattle make $83,000 a year. But that characterization greatly underestimates the amount of money SPD officers make in overtime. In 2022, the majority of SPD patrol officers made more than $100,000 with overtime. Some cleared more than $200,000, including officers Ron Willis and Robert Stevenson, who made $200,000 in overtime alone, according to numbers crunched by DivestSPD. Until we have a homeless cop problem, it seems far-fetched to suggest the City pays cops too little for them to afford to live in Seattle.

But even if the Council sees the housing subsidy purely as a way to entice people to work for SPD, paying for cop housing hasn’t seen success in other jurisdictions. Baltimore started a housing subsidy program for cops in 2022, and it continues to struggle with staffing. The City of Los Angeles created a housing subsidy program for the LAPD, paid for by donations from businesses. That program started in 2022, and yet by 2024 the City had still fallen short of its goal to hire an additional 1,000 police officers, netting an increase of just about 400 cops. LA also significantly increased police starting salaries and overall pay, all in an effort to recruit and retain officers. LA never hired the number of cops they believed the city needed, and the City now faces a $400 million deficit, created in part by the deal the City struck with the LAPD.

The Seattle City Council’s proposals make even less sense in the face of Seattle’s projected $200 million budget hole, a figure that analysts expect to double by 2026. A hiring freeze has already threatened summer camps for Seattle's youth, the city’s own human service workers can’t afford to live here, several other departments are chronically understaffed, and yet the council is still out here pitching policy to either pay for or solicit donations for housing subsidies for some of the City's highest paid employees, as well as using public funds to pay for their commutes in their patrol vehicles, all so we can still very likely fall short of our staffing goals. Glad to have these adults in the room. 

Instead of subsidizing police housing, the council might consider funding or asking private businesses to fund subsidized housing for people living unsheltered, the very people that the cops spend a significant amount of time hassling off the sidewalk. Or maybe the City could fund robust police alternatives, so that we don’t have to send a very expensive gun and badge to every call. After all, though surveys show that most people want more cops, those same surveys also show that people want police alternatives. But for some reason, this mayor and the last one seem content only to stand up piddly little pilot programs while other cities embrace change get results.