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News / Northwest

Seattle commission recommends against new test for police recruits

By David Kroman, The Seattle Times
Published: June 19, 2024, 10:05am

A new report from Seattle’s independent Civil Service Commission undercuts a key goal of legislation recently passed by the Seattle City Council aimed at improving the process for hiring new police officers.

Andrea Scheele, executive director of the Public Safety Civil Service Commission, concluded it was neither practical nor advisable for Seattle to use a new police recruitment test that has a higher rate of candidates who pass than the current test. The conclusion is likely to frustrate mayor’s office staff and council members who see the city’s current test as an obstacle to bringing in new recruits.

Staff members with the provider of the proposed new test declined to answer all of Scheele’s questions about the specifics of the test and signaled they were uninterested in working with Seattle, she wrote in a report published Monday.

In her report, Scheele recommended Seattle continue using its current test, developed in 2012, and look to 2025 to launch a competitive bidding process if city officials want to make a change.

Jamie Housen, spokesperson for Mayor Bruce Harrell, strongly disputed Scheele’s analysis, calling the conclusion “incredibly disappointing.” The mayor’s office urged the commission to continue to pursue switching tests.

“We reject [the commission’s] unsubstantiated conclusions,” he said.

For a Seattle City Hall that’s promised to grow the size of the Police Department, there are limited levers that can be pulled to slow the exodus of current officers and fill the pipeline with new ones.

Pay raises, approved recently, were the top priority for the council and mayor. Beyond that, policymakers have homed in on bureaucratic processes and converting more applicants into working officers. That conversion rate has hovered around 3 percent over the last decade, but the number of raw applicants has dropped by roughly half in recent years.

Since reaching a pre-pandemic peak of nearly 1,400 officers, the Police Department has fallen to below 1,000 as hiring has not kept up with recruitment. The council ratified a new contract with the city’s largest police union this year, making Seattle officers the highest paid in the state. Applications have increased in the months since, Scheele wrote.

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Both the mayor’s office and council President Sara Nelson zeroed in specifically on the city’s recruitment test. Dubbed the National Testing Network test, it was pieced together by the Seattle Police Department just over 10 years ago, around the time the department was entering into a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to overhaul its use of force policies.

Large departments up and down the West Coast, including Portland; Oakland, Calif.; San Francisco; and San Diego, now use the same test.

In Washington, however, most departments use a test from a different company, called the Public Safety Test.

As they seek to compete with neighboring departments more directly for officers, Nelson and Deputy Mayor Tim Burgess began pushing the city to switch to the Public Safety Test this year. The hope was, as applicants apply to Bellevue, Shoreline or other nearby departments, they could simply check a box to have their scores also sent to Seattle.

Initially, the bill introduced by Nelson would have mandated that switch. But that raised legal questions; the Civil Service Commission is tasked with writing the application process and is technically independent.

As a result, the final bill passed by the council this year urged the commission to make the switch, but did not require it.

As members of the mayor’s office and City Council pushed for the commission to adopt the new test, Scheele and others raised questions about how it compared with the one being used now. The city’s current test, for example, passes about 70 percent of those who take it; the Public Safety Test passes about 90 percent.

As Scheele was doing her research, staff with Public Safety Test stopped answering her questions, she wrote. Test staff members wrote to her that they “are not interested in partnering with the Commission to offer police officer recruitment or pre-employment testing services.”

Scheele, as well, raised several logistical and possible legal hurdles to adopting a new test.

For one, comparing candidates against each other becomes more difficult if they have taken different tests.

Additionally, Public Safety Test staff members signaled their current test would likely need to be rewritten for Seattle — a bigger department serving a more diverse population. In that scenario, candidates applying to neighboring departments may still not be able to send their scores to Seattle.

Scheele ultimately concluded Seattle should stick with the National Testing Network test, which she believes tests for “restraint in use of authority, integrity, ability to understand and help with human distress, group bias awareness, and commitment to equality.”

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