Tacoma City Councilman Robert Thoms looks to his own front yard to explain why he wants the Police Department to replenish its ranks from the recession-induced cuts that slashed almost a sixth of its positions for sworn officers.
His family has counted three vehicle break-ins and a hit and run that damaged his car at his Stadium District home over the past five years. They’re the kind of nuisance crimes that he suspects many other residents are experiencing.
Now, with city revenue rising, Thoms wants to see if the Police Department can make a dent in irritating crimes like those if it brings back some of the positions it lost.
“We haven’t while I’ve been on the council invested the right amount of resources in crime,” he said. “It’s time for us to spend more money on core services, like law enforcement.”
He’s one of several council members who are putting crime at the top of their to-do lists as the city heads into its every-other-year budget writing process. While FBI statistics show crime is generally on the decline in Tacoma, city leaders are frustrated that Tacoma continues to have higher rates than other communities. They’re especially concerned by rising numbers of drive-by shootings and persistently high rates of property crimes.
But as much as council members want to hire more cops and in spite of rising revenue, they’re still facing a $6.7 million deficit that may crimp how many officers they can hire.
They’re also boxed in by the hefty raises that the city’s public safety employees have received since the recession. Cops, for instance, are earning almost 20 percent more than they took home in 2011.
As a result, the city spent $39.9 million on Police Department wages last year, about $700,000 more than it spent five years ago when it had dozens more sworn officers.
“How are we going to pay for it?” asked City Manager T.C. Broadnax, referring to the pitches he’s hearing to hire more police. “I don’t want to go back to four years ago, four years from now.”
Thoms and others who want to beef up the Police Department have momentum with Tacoma’s police unions loudly advocating for more resources. The main police union this spring commissioned a survey that showed crime as the highest-rated concern among the 400 voters it polled.
It’s an easy sell with some residents who are starting to notice that they’re waiting a long time when they call police for anything other than emergencies.
Kayla Sainti, 25, spent 90 minutes waiting for an officer to show up when she reported a late-morning break-in at an East Side home on June 10. A police sergeant told her all of the officers assigned to her part of the city were tied up with domestic violence calls.
At that time of day, no more than five patrol officers are assigned to any of the city’s three residential police districts. Seven cover an area that includes downtown and the Port of Tacoma.
“The shortage is not the Police Department’s fault,” she said. “The shortage is the city’s fault. They need to increase their staffing because they can’t even manage the calls they have.”
Tacoma Police Union Local 6 is pointing to stories like hers and the results of its survey to contend that residents want more officers.
“We want to help. It’s really hard to sit back and watch this unravel,” said Officer Chris Tracy, the union’s vice president.
A $60 million hole
The brewing dispute over how to swell Tacoma’s law enforcement ranks has its roots in the budget free-fall of 2011, when the city faced a deficit of $60 million. Tacoma cut 58 positions for officers between 2011 and 2014.
The city reached its peak law enforcement staffing in 2008, when it had 398 officers according to Police Chief Donald Ramsdell. Today it has 338 and it struggles to keep its patrol division staffed without forcing cops to take mandatory overtime.
When the ax fell, Tacoma’s police unions argued that reductions in law enforcement staffing eventually would take a toll on public safety. They say that the Police Department today has far fewer resources in its special units that used to stay on top of gangs, drugs and traffic.
“We warned them at the time it would have dramatic consequences over time. It wouldn’t happen overnight,” Tracy said.
Tacoma Police are not alone in calling for a return to pre-recession staffing. Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor released a consultant’s report last week that concluded the Sheriff’s Department is significantly understaffed and needs to add at least 40 patrol deputies. The assumption among County Council and sheriff personnel is that a voter-approved levy increase would be needed to pay for the additional positions.
In Tacoma, the police positions are vying for a larger share of the city’s general fund at a time when many other priorities are demanding the city’s attention, such as multimillion dollar projects that would improve Tacoma’s Lincoln District, develop an East Side community center and partly fund construction of a new mental health hospital.
Council members have said in public that they want to fund all of those efforts.
“We’re doing things that people have been saying for years, ‘Why don’t we have the money to do just this sort of thing?’” Broadnax said, in arguing for the varied neighborhood investments the city is undertaking.
At a March council meeting, Mayor Marilyn Strickland said that those kind of endeavors can make a difference in reducing crime, too.
She argued against committing the city to a law enforcement expansion during one of the council’s annual goal-setting sessions because she didn’t want it to overshadow other citywide investments.
“If we say we’re going to solve crime, we’re kind of quietly making a promise to hire 100 more police officers as if that’s going to solve it,” Strickland said at the meeting.
She stresses that public safety takes up the lion’s share of the city’s general fund, accounting for about 63 percent of spending. To her, that shows that the city is backing up its commitment to law enforcement with all the resources it can fund.
Raises a given in next contract
Although the Police Department has dozens fewer officers than it employed in 2011, the city today spends about the same amount of money on police wages. That number held steady around $39 million a year, with rising pay overcoming the savings of the recession’s buyouts and vacancies.
That sum makes up a smaller portion of the city’s general fund than in past years. In 2011, the city collected $190.2 million in general fund revenue. The number rose to $211.1 million last year.
Records obtained by The News Tribune show that the average base salary for city employees in the Police Department last year was $94,350, up from $78,865 in 2011. That’s an increase of almost 20 percent.
With overtime and other extra compensation, average total annual wages for Police Department employees in 2015 jumps to $103,396, up from $91,588 five years ago.
By comparison, average household incomes in Pierce County have increased by about 9 percent to $61,485 from $56,114 since 2011, according to state estimates.
Officers likely are going to get a big raise this year when they vote on a new contract.
Their last contract expired in 2014. It includes language that requires the city to set their wages at a higher rate than six other other large cities in Washington State, such as Spokane, Bellevue and Kent.
The wages “keep the officers being paid as a professional staff,” Tracy said, arguing that Tacoma tends to see more crime than comparable cities. “Why pick Tacoma if you get paid more in a safer place?” he said.
Broadnax said a six-city comparison again will shape police wages in the new contract. Officers also expect to get back wages catching them up on almost two years of raises they’ve missed working under the expired contract.
Cops are not the only city employees doing better in 2015 than in 2011.
Last year, 1,251 city employees earned more than $100,000 in total wages, up from 776 in 2011. Overall wages are up about 11 percent.
The city has added staff to manage voter-approved initiatives raising the minimum wage and requiring companies to offer sick leave. It’s also cobbled together a new equity and empowerment office that aims to provide better city services in low-income neighborhoods.
Broadnax said his hands are tied on wages for the city’s public safety unions given how difficult it would be to convince the union to forfeit language that guarantees higher pay.
“People want to work for us because we pay the best. Hopefully we get the best. It doesn’t give us a lot of flexibility,” he said.
Tracy criticized the city manager for appearing unwilling to study whether the city needs more police officers. He pointed to the Sheriff's Department study and another report commissioned by Seattle that called for more law enforcement staffing.
“Other cities are actually jumping out in front of this,” he said. In Tacoma, “they’re not even willing to study the depth of the problem.”
Council and police chief looking to hire
Several council members this year told Broadnax in his job performance review that they expect him to begin restoring positions to the Police Department.
Councilman Ryan Mello, for example, wants Broadnax to develop a plan that would reduce property crimes and improve emergency response times. He has said that likely means adding staff to the police and fire departments.
“I know there’s certainly a commitment on the entire council to figure out how to restore what we can,” Councilwoman Victoria Woodards. “I can’t tell you how we get there.”
Councilmen Joe Lonergan and Conor McCarthy also have said in public that they’re concerned about crime and law enforcement resources. Lonergan in his review of Broadnax’s job performance wrote that he wants a plan that would provide “increased intensity and efficacy” of the city’s public safety resources.
“As I attend community meetings in my district, I hear time and again frustration from our residents regarding the gap between the level of service they receive and what they expect,” Lonergan said.
Broadnax said he hears those requests and is developing a budget that will “give people some comfort that we are paying attention and trying to make some strides in these areas.”
Back at the Police Department, Ramsdell said his budget has improved enough for him to start hiring more positions than he loses to retirements every year. Last year, for example, 19 officers retired but Ramsdell was able to add 24 cops.
He’s working on a proposal to add more staff in the coming year, but he’s not yet releasing a number of a new officers he wants to hire.
Ideally, he said the department would have 375 sworn officers in addition to the white collar positions its workload run efficiently, such as finger print analysts and crime scene technicians.
Tacoma’s police union wants about the same number of officers, and it’s asking the city to hire about 30 new cops a year for the next four years.
“I know we’re not going to get everything we ask for,” Ramsdell said.
Governing, a national magazine that looks local government issues, in 2012 used FBI data to show that cities with more than 50,000 people had an average of 17 officers for every 10,000 residents.
At the time, Tacoma was a little above average with 17.4 officers per 10,000 residents. Now, its police staffing is slightly below average at 16.7 officers per 10,000 residents.
Officers in the police union connect Tacoma’s crime trends with their reduced numbers. Ramsdell won’t draw that correlation.
He acknowledges his officers had more time to make contacts with citizens when he had more of them. Today, they tend to fly to high priority calls.
The department earlier this year put together a violence reduction task force. It’s also being asked to focus on property crimes.
Those kinds of teams were easier to put together before the cuts.
“At full staffing, we were able to take four officers and put them on a special assignment,” he said.
He won’t get there in the next year or two, but, he said, “the city is looking to start to rebuild.”