Voters can expect to see a ballot measure next year to raise taxes to hire more Kent Police officers.
That’s the message Police Chief Rafael Padilla delivered Oct. 3 as the guest speaker at the Kent Chamber of Commerce luncheon at the Green River College Kent Campus.
“You can expect next year there will be an ask and a ballot initiative in support of public safety,” Padilla said.
“I think if you are informed and have the information, that it’s going to do very well for us. I believe the facts are on our side. I know there is tax fatigue, but this is a Kent specific thing that will impact all of us.”
Padilla wants to boost the force to 185 officers from the 165 the department is expected to be staffed at in 2020. The City Council has approved the hiring of several officers per year for the last few years. The force is authorized to have 161 officers this year.
“Our agency should be at a minimum of about 185,” Padilla said about the number of officers for a city with a population of about 129,000. “If we got to that, we would be in the middle of comparable cities.”
Voters rejected Proposition A in April 2018 by 57 to 43 percent. The measure would have hiked city utility taxes to 8 percent from 6 percent to pay for more police. That would have brought in about $4.5 million a year to hire 23 more officers. The city levies a fee on electric, natural gas, cable and phone bills.
“I look at that as an opportunity,” Padilla said about another attempt after the failed measure. “I don’t know if we made our case. We are going to make our case.”
One audience member asked Padilla about shifting resources from other city departments to police rather than raising taxes.
”The revenues are not there,” Padilla said in response. “Our expenditures are outpacing revenues. Priorities might be a discussion, but even if we put everything (savings) into police, it’s not where we want to be. And we need good roads and good parks.”
Mayor Dana Ralph and the council back the plan for more officers, Padilla said.
“It’s not a lack of support from the council or the mayor’s office,” he said. “They are pushing budget dollars to get more police officers than we probably can afford.”
Ralph has committed to recommending a police ballot measure since the night Proposition A failed last year. But Ralph and the council have yet to figure out the right timing for the measure. Ralph had looked at putting a measure to raise property taxes on the Nov. 5 general election ballot but decided in July against targeting that date.
Four council seats are up for grabs on the Nov. 5 ballot, so what type of tax increase the mayor and council decided to seek in 2020 remains to be determined.
Padilla, promoted by Ralph in May 2018 to replace Ken Thomas as chief, said the force had about 25 vacancies when he took over. He said he has narrowed the number of open positions to five.
“With a couple retirements it will go up to seven, but we are going to get it down to zero,” he said.
With the filled positions, Padilla said he was able to double the number of K-9 units to four from two and increased the number of bicycle patrol officers to six with a goal of eight by the end of the year.
Kent had 10.8 officers per every 10,000 population (139 officers total) in 2016, according to a national study by governing.com based on the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting stats. Kent has since raised the rate to 12.4 officers.
Based on the 2016 numbers (the latest national report available), cities with populations between 100,000 and 200,000 had an average of 15.9 officers per 10,000 people.
The rates for other Washington cities included Seattle 19.8 (1,384 officers); Everett 17.2 (187); Tacoma 16.0 (336); Spokane 14.3 (307); Auburn 13.8 (108 ); Federal Way 13.5 (130); Bellingham 13.1 (113); Bellevue 12.3 (175); Renton 11.5 (117) and Vancouver 11.0 (193).
“We rank near the bottom of officers per capita,” Padilla said. “If we were Seattle, we would have about 320 officers. We are about half the allotted officers in Seattle.”
Padilla said the extra tax revenue is needed in order for Kent to make the big jump to the 185 officers from 160 officers.
“We can’t hit this enough,” Padilla said to the crowd in yet another reference to the need for more officers. “I know I sound like a whiny baby, but it’s true.”
During his 50-minute talk, Padilla also touched on the homelessness issue in town.
“It’s impacting all of you I know,” he said. “It creates an environment that sometimes is not as friendly or family welcoming as we’d like.”
The chief said he has an unit dedicated to engage with the homeless, many who camp along the Green River Trail, in parks or on empty properties.
“We go out and we team with service providers,” Padilla said about a group that includes workers from King County Mental Health Services, Union Gospel Mission, Catholic Community Services and others. “We take them out in the field with officers and do outreach. How can we get you in housing or treatment for conditions? We do it over and over again. It’s not unusual to contact someone five to 10 times before they say they’re ready for help and a good percentage of them never take help.”
Padilla said officers counted 202 homeless camps in 2018 and cleaned out 175. He said the camps can be as small as the meeting room at Green River College, where the Chamber of Commerce met, to as large as several city blocks.
“They are huge and intricate,” Padilla said.
When people seem to prefer to remain in homeless camps, Padilla said it becomes challenging to clean up the camps.
“We will clean out a camp and for a few weeks it’ll be fine ,” he said. “Then another group or the same group moves back in. It gets to the point where we can’t do anymore, accountability comes in, and we try to get them to move on.”
Padilla said he will not use city jail space for the homeless because there is no room in the jail.
If police had more officers and funds, however, Padilla said it could do more to help the homeless.
“We want to do a crisis response team, with a trained mental health worker and caseworkers that pair with officers to respond in the field,” Padilla said.