Thirteen officers are voluntarily leaving the Kent Police Department so far this year and another eight are retiring, a 13% hit among the 160-member force.
Despite so many officers leaving, fewer people are applying to take their jobs.
“Very sobering, for sure,” Kent Mayor Dana Ralph said after a Public Safety report by Police Chief Rafael Padilla to the City Council July 20 that detailed the higher number of departures and lower number of candidates.
It’s a trend across the state and even the nation.
“This is just not Kent and the state of Washington, but it’s pretty intense here,” Padilla said after referring to a recent report by the Police Executive Research Forum, a national membership organization of police executives based in Washington, D.C., that surveyed agencies in May.
The national report showed a 45% increase in retirements, an 18% hike in voluntary resignations and a 5% decrease in applications, according to the 194 agencies that responded to the survey.
The 13 officers leaving Kent are taking jobs in other states. Two of those are leaving the profession, Padilla said. An average of fewer than one Kent officer has left the state in prior years. The eight retiring officers doubles the department average of fewer than three retirements per year.
Kent has 153 officers on duty out of 160 allotted under the budget approved by the council. The department is down seven officers due to those on injury/medical leave, at the police academy or who are doing field training.
Padilla said he conducts exit interviews with the officers to find out the reasons they are leaving.
“I’ve had moments when I’ve been somewhat depressed,” Padilla said. “I had six exit interviews in the last two weeks from early retirements or change of location. It comes down to them finding a better opportunity for their family and careers outside of Washington state.”
The chief said he doesn’t blame the officers.
“A major theme is the officers are very frustrated,” Padilla said. “The pandemic caused a shutdown of the criminal justice center. They would arrest people, but they are not going away anywhere. They want to be successful in what they’re doing. …they didn’t get into the profession to not have an impact in stopping criminals.”
Kent officers are finding jobs in other states that prosecute more criminals and allow more preventative, community policing.
“It’s not the police I find as a problem as much as the court system,” Councilmember Les Thomas said after hearing Padilla’s report. “You make a good arrest and it’s dismissed or some other thing.”
Thomas said he understands the chief’s frustration.
“I feel bad for you,” Thomas said. “You’re in a tough situation.”
In addition to Kent, officers are retiring sooner and leaving other police departments. The Seattle Police Department had 66 officers leave in the first few months of 2021 to drop the force to about 1,100 members, according to the Seattle Times. A total of 180 officers left the department in 2020.
Steve Strachan, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs & Police Chiefs, knows about the trend.
“I have heard from many sheriffs and chiefs that they are seeing retirements and people leaving for other professions, and other states, at a significantly higher rate,” Strachan said in a July 23 email. “I am also hearing there are many more who are looking or preparing to leave.”
Strachan recently chatted with an officer making a career change.
“One of the most progressive and innovative officers with whom I worked in my career at a different department let me know last week he was looking to move out of the profession,” Strachan said. “That breaks my heart – he is the kind of person who is the future of policing and he does the job the right way – with respect, humility and compassion. However, it’s just too much right now; I understand when people have to make the right decisions for their family.”
Strachan, who was the Kent Police chief from 2006 to 2010, said there are various reasons officers are leaving.
“I agree wholeheartedly with Chief Padilla’s comments – frustration with the courts, significant restrictions on proactive policing, and I would add that officers need to feel comfortable and supported to do their jobs, and clear direction on what is expected from society,” Strachan said.
Padilla said nationwide political trends make it harder to keep officers.
“They are listening to the defund (police movement) and a lot of conversations,” Padilla said. “It’s tough for a department like Kent. We don’t have the same issues they have at the national level, but it impacts us the same as Minneapolis.”
Strachan, who also led the Bremerton Police Department and King County Sheriff’s Office after leaving Kent, agreed the present climate impacts officers staying on the job.
“The current environment is not supportive, and while almost all in law enforcement support reform and changes, what we are seeing is really more reactive and restrictive, without creating the critical behavioral health infrastructure to support it,” Strachan said. “We need positive reform, and to be responsive to community concerns, but also need to balance it with attention to public safety.”
Padilla told the council, just as he has in the past couple of years, that he believes Kent should have about 195 officers to serve a population of 133,000, similar to other cities of Kent’s size.
Current staffing puts Kent at 1.15 officers per 1,000 residents. The state average is 1.19 (the lowest in the nation). The national average is 2.4 officers per 1,000 residents, according to FBI Police Employee Data 2019.
“We are not even close,” Padilla said.
With fewer officers, Padilla said it leads to longer response times, more complaints and less proactive community-based contacts. All staff also faces mandated overtime to cover for having fewer officers.
“It will lead to more crime,” Padilla said.
Strachan said the mandated overtime makes the job even tougher.
”I think a huge factor is families and stress,” Strachan said. “This profession requires nights, holidays, overtime and sometimes working through very stressful decisions and situations. When you add increased liability, negative views from the public, and stereotyping all officers for the actions of a few, many families just feel it is not worth it anymore.”
With so many officers leaving, jobs will open for new candidates. But fewer people are applying to be police officers.
“I’m going to be straightforward, this is not good,” Padilla told the mayor and council. “We are experiencing a significant decrease in the number of applicants coming in.”
Kent had 636 candidates in 2019. That dropped to 478 in 2020 and to 152 through the first six months of this year, which would total about 300 for the year if the current trend continues. Many candidates do not end up meeting the requirements to join the force.
“Starting the third quarter 2020 our numbers died down to 60-65 applicants per quarter and that has been consistent for four quarters in a row,” Padilla said.
Padilla said the candidate numbers are trending 37% below last year and 52% below 2019.
Councilmember Zandria Michaud asked Padilla how he plans to handle so many officers leaving the department and fewer candidates to replace them.
“I am going to try to make this the best place an officer can work anywhere,” Padilla said. “The challenges we are facing, we are going to hang in there and see a level set. It’s not as dire as it could be. I love the people that leaving, but I’m putting my energy in those remaining behind.”