OLYMPIA — Legislators have spent the first few weeks of the year in conversations on a number of controversial public safety concerns, such as the state’s drug possession law or vehicle pursuits policy.
One issue has some support from both sides: finding ways to address law enforcement workforce shortages.
More training academies, using state funding for officers and giving out hiring and retention bonuses are all up for discussion this year.
Washington is clear at the bottom in the number of law enforcement based on population, Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, said in an interview earlier this session. More needs to be done to get Washington to at least the middle of the road, he said.
“We’re going to have to have significantly more officers,” Braun said.
Republicans have made public safety a top priority this session, blaming workforce shortages on the new police reform legislation that passed in 2021, which included changes to vehicle pursuit and use-of-force standards. While some Democrats remain skeptical about changing the laws passed two years ago, many in leadership are focused on addressing workforce shortages in all sectors, including in law enforcement.
Some opponents of the recruitment proposals, however, say the Legislature should be cautious when hiring more officers and that doing so may not actually reduce crime.
In his State of the State speech earlier this year, Gov. Jay Inslee said he wants to help local agencies hire and retain more officers, including with a proposal to create more regional law enforcement training centers.
“These new facilities will allow us to train hundreds more recruits, and help law enforcement agencies recruit people from within their diverse communities,” Inslee said.
Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl said Spokane is far below the national average of officers per capita. He wants to add a significant number of officers, which would require state funding. Meidl is supportive of bills that provide funding for recruiting, hiring and training.
Using sales tax to hire more officers
A bill from Sen. Jeff Holy, R-Cheney, would provide cities and counties more funding to hire officers. It would allow local governments to use 0.1% of state sales tax to hire more law enforcement personnel. That would set aside about $250 million each year for cities and counties to hire officers at least up to the national average per capita, which is 2.4 per 1,000 people.
Once local jurisdictions meet the national average, they can use any leftover funds to reduce crime.
The funding is not coming from any new tax or revenue stream, Holy said. It’s from already existing sales tax revenue, which some local jurisdictions could have already been using to fund law enforcement.
This bill would simply require local governments to set aside this money specifically for law enforcement, he said.
“We’re getting ahead of the game and saying that this dedicates that amount out there, that this is a matter of need out there,” Holy said.
The Washington Coalition for Police Accountability, which led many of the conversations in 2021 that resulted in a legislative package of police reform bills, testified against the bill in a Senate committee hearing last month. Leslie Cushman, representing the group, said there is not any evidence that fewer officers actually leads to more crime.
She urged the committee to be cautious when they hear this bill.
“I don’t want the public to think that simply hiring more officers will reduce crime,” Cushman said.
The bill has support from the Washington State Association of Counties, the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, local sheriffs offices and a number of cities.
Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward wrote in support of the bill. She said the additional funding will help the city get to the national average while relieving officer workload, which leads to fatigue and burnout.
The proposal passed out of the Law and Justice Committee with seven of its 11 members voting in favor. Two Democrats, including committee chair Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, voted for it.
More training opportunities
Another aspect of Holy’s bill would increase the number of training classes of the state’s basic law enforcement academy to 25 each year by 2024 and 27 each year by 2025.
Holy said there are people who want to join local police departments, but there aren’t enough spaces in training courses to accommodate all of them.
Spokane County Sheriff John Nowels said he supports any additional state funding for officer recruitment and retention. He said he hopes legislators will increase the number of academies offered by the Criminal Justice Training Commission, which would allow his agency to get more officers on the streets more quickly.
Another bill that would expand academies in the state is one from Rep. Jacquelin Maycumber, R-Republic, with support from a number of Spokane-area lawmakers, including Democrats Marcus Riccelli and Timm Ormsby. The proposal would create a pilot project to provide basic law enforcement training in Eastern Washington.
It would require the Criminal Justice Training Commission to host classes of the training academy in Eastern Washington. It would require the commission to host at least three classes each year with at least 30 students per class.
The training must be located east of the Cascade Mountains in a county with at least 400,000 people. Only Spokane County currently has a population that size among qualifying counties.
There is currently training in Spokane, but this would be a basic training academy in Eastern Washington dedicated to Eastern Washington, Maycumber said. It would allow officers to be trained in the communities they’re working.
“We want to provide law enforcement officers with the safest and best community, the best training and the best workforce we can,” Maycumber said.
Typically, there are two basic law enforcement training sessions held in Spokane each year for largely Eastern Washington agencies. CJTC has been looking to add a third for more than a year.
Maycumber’s bill has not yet been scheduled for a public hearing.
Hiring, retention bonuses
Another proposal comes from Rep. Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn, and would give hiring and retention bonuses to law enforcement.
The proposal would require the Criminal Justice Training Commission to award a one-time, $5,000 bonus per new law enforcement officer at each local law enforcement agencies, and a $5,000 retention bonus to each law enforcement officer that remains employed with their hiring agency for at least a year.
It would then require the Criminal Justice Training Commission and the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs to develop, implement and expand programs for professional development outreach, retention and support. It also requires the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs to study funding and staffing levels of local law enforcement agencies. The Washington State Patrol and the Department of Fish and Wildlife would also be tasked with developing outreach and retention programs.
The bill is currently awaiting a hearing in the House Appropriations committee, but it has not been scheduled.
Another bill in the House would focus on incentives for state troopers. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, would create an expedited program to fill vacancies. The program would include accelerated training and sign-on bonuses ranging from $5,000 to $7,500.
The bill will have a public hearing and is scheduled for a committee vote next week.
The Legislative session ends April 23.