Kent Police were down 18 officers in May after more than two dozen left the force for other jobs or retired.
But after pay increases, hiring bonuses and a heavy recruiting effort, the department is back to the 166 officers allowed under the city budget.
“We have filled all of our vacancies,” Police Chief Rafael Padilla told the City Council during his Dec. 13 Public Safety Report.
Even with one candidate failing to make it through the probationary process, Padilla won’t have any trouble finding a replacement.
“We have one spot and 10 people want it,” Padilla said.
That’s a far cry from the past couple of years when many officers left and replacements were hard to find. That’s still the case for many police departments.
“I give all the credit to our recruiting and hiring team,” Padilla said. “We are an anomaly right now in law enforcement. We are proud of that. We are fully staffed, and training new officers to join us later this year.”
Mayor Dana Ralph welcomed the news.
“Congratulations on the hirings,” Ralph said at the council meeting. “Last year we were facing a record number of open positions. We have once again shown that Kent has it figured out.”
The council approved in September 2021 a 16% pay increase and hiring incentives in an effort to boost staff.
“Thank you council and mayor, to put your money where your mouth is,” Padilla said in a May report to the council. “I’m pretty sure we are the best in the state, with starting pay at $83,000 and experienced officers at $108,000.”
The department also offers a police SUV to take home, 400 hours of annual leave to start, body-worn cameras, college education incentive pay, college education reimbursement and bilingual pay. Officers who come to Kent from another police department in the state receive a $25,000 bonus. Officers from law enforcement agencies in other states get a $10,000 bonus.
Padilla shifted two officers from patrol to be full-time recruiters. Recruiters went to the campuses of Washington State University in Pullman, Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Tacoma Community College and others in an effort to find new officers among soon-to-be graduates.
“To get to this point was a huge undertaking and I’m very proud of what our Recruiting and Hiring Unit accomplished,” Padilla said in an email. “KPD is a great place to work and our team made the one-on-one connections with candidates so they could see that for themselves.”
The department also stepped up with a fresh marketing and recruiting campaign on social media.
“You’re going to see our team everywhere they can be,” said Padilla, who, in May, reminded the council that a city with Kent’s population of more than 130,000 should have a staff of 195 officers. “We are hiring. We are very serious about getting people in the door.”
Despite reaching the 166 officers allowed under the budget, Padilla continues his drive to eventually expand the force to help cover a city with a population of 134,835, according to the U.S. Census Bureau July 2021 estimate.
“While this is an important first step, we remain understaffed to provide the level of service expected from our community members,” Padilla said in an email. “KPD has remains about 30-35 officers below what we should have based on call volume, frequency of crime, square miles to cover, and city population size. The good news is that we have strong support from Mayor Ralph and members of the City Council.”
The mayor and council didn’t add any new police positions to the 2023-2024 biennial budget approved last month in an effort to keep the budget tight. But the council in November 2021, as part of its 2022 mid-biennium budget adjustment, approved $693,350 to restore five police officer positions that were frozen in 2020 due to COVID-19 budget cutbacks.
While the department has reached full staffing for officers, the co-responder crisis response program approved by the council in November 2021 for the 2022 budget was delayed and changed to contract with Puget Sound Fire for a response team.
“We hoped to have a team up and running by now, but that did not happen,” Padilla said during his report to the council.
The council in November 2021 approved $942,230 to fund a program with a police officer and a mental health worker responding to certain 911 calls.
Padilla said the demand for mental health counselors made it challenging to find people to hire.
The department is in final contract negotiations with Puget Sound Fire to partner with its program to set up a team. Padilla said a proposal is expected to be presented to the council at its Jan. 17 meeting.
“It’ll be a great partnership,” Padilla said. “We will have dedicated resources to Kent, seven days a week coverage, a swing shift with a dedicated nurse and mental health counselor assigned to Kent.”
Puget Sound Fire in September announced a change to its FD Cares program. The new setup features a registered nurse and a licensed social worker as opposed to the previous arrangement of a firefighter and a nurse.
The nurses provide comprehensive services, including medical assistance, discussing medications and interactions, assessing fall risks and developing long-term care plans, according to Puget Sound Fire.
“Historically, this part of the program has been very successful and helped a lot of people,” according to a Puget Sound Fire statement in September. “By incorporating a licensed social worker into the FD Cares unit, we are able to better address issues in mental and behavioral health, drug and alcohol addiction, and food and housing insecurities. A licensed social worker will have the skills necessary to assist these patients.”
The Medic One Foundation is funding a one-year pilot program to add social workers to Puget Sound Fire’s mobile integrated health program. The cost to add social workers to the program is $184,000, according to Puget Sound Fire spokesperson Pat Pawlak. FD Cares started in 2013 so that the fire department may assist community members with issues before an issue becomes an emergency. At full strength, the program has 17 employees, Pawlak said.
Padilla looks forward to the new response team.
“We’re very excited,” Padilla said. “It’s much delayed but it’s soon to be here in January.”