SPD Sergeants, Beat Cops to Have Same Work Schedules

A policy of having Seattle beat cops work different schedules than their sergeants, creating what critics considered a lack of oversight, quietly ended last month.

By Jennifer Sullivan, Seattle Times

A 7-year-old policy of having beat cops in Seattle’s five police precincts regularly work different schedules than their sergeants, creating what critics considered a severe lack of supervision, quietly came to an end late last month.

The change probably won’t be visible to anyone outside the department, said Seattle Police Officers’ Guild President Ron Smith. However, he said, it has been felt immediately by street officers. 

The previous policy calling for a rotating schedule, part of a neighborhood-policing plan created by former Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske, was abandoned under the July 2012 consent decree between the city and the Department of Justice (DOJ).

“People only saw their sergeant two days a week; it was a mess,” said Smith. “It was a function of the neighborhood-policing plan. It set us up for failure.”

Smith said there was “no continuum of supervision” under the old staffing plan. When the neighborhood-policing went into effect, city officials and department brass said it shifted officers’ work schedules around the times that 911 call loads were the heaviest.

But on Jan. 28, patrol schedules in the city’s 51 police beats were changed to comply with the DOJ consent decree in an effort to improve supervision of patrol officers. Each patrol squad will now work alongside a sergeant, a schedule more in line with what the department did before 2008, said Smith. 

The department has gone from 66 to 72 patrol squads and increased the number of patrol sergeants by rotating them out of other divisions, Smith said. 

To balance out call loads for the new patrol squads and handle days off and vacation schedules, the department also adjusted its precinct boundaries. 

Seattle Police Department attorney Brian Maxey, in a letter sent last month to Merrick Bobb, the federal monitor overseeing the consent decree, said the precinct redraw will “enhance the department’s ability to ensure consistent and adequately trained supervision.” 

The precinct boundary changes are slight. The Eastlake neighborhood goes from being split between the East and West precincts to being served solely by the West Precinct. The First Hill neighborhood, previously split between West and East precincts, will now be part of the East Precinct. 

“We’ve redistricted parts of the city to improve efficiency and service,” said department spokesman Sgt. Sean Whitcomb. “If you look at the volume of work in different areas and compare metrics, we made sure it’s balanced.”

Under the consent decree, supervision at the sergeant level is a key element in curtailing excessive use of force, one of the findings following a DOJ investigation.

The department is required to ensure that field officers are assigned to a single, consistent sergeant; to limit the use of acting sergeants; and to deploy enough sergeants to properly supervise officers, particularly to investigate and document use of force. 

Last May, Bobb warned the department in a tersely worded letter of the importance of making the supervision change. 

In a Jan. 15 letter to Bobb, Maxey announced “the Seattle Police Department has achieved a significant milestone.”

“For the first time, the Seattle Police Department is now able to document that it has sufficient, qualified first-line supervisors to assure that the provisions of the Settlement Agreement are implemented for all aspects of the agreement currently in effect,” Maxey wrote. 

In a news release issued Jan. 27, the department said the precinct change “will enable supervisors to work more closely with officers, providing guidance in investigations, reviewing use of force, and ensuring quality of public service.”

Smith said he hasn’t heard much from patrol officers since the change went into effect, but he isn’t surprised. 

“The fact is they now have the appropriate number of sergeants to support their people. I think it’s nothing but a good thing,” Smith said. “The officers have the same sergeant all the time, and the sergeant is supervising the same people all the time.”