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Seattle police union says many officers leaving the force frustrated over city politics

SEATTLE -- While Seattle's population is skyrocketing, the number of police officers has practically stayed the same as it was in the 1970s, according to the Seattle Police Guild.

But now, a union leader says, there is a bigger problem.

“I have never seen the number of officers who are leaving and the way they are leaving,” Seattle Police Guild Vice President Rich O’Neill said.

The Seattle Police Department says 41 officers have left the force, something that's not unusual due to retirements, but another source within the department told Q13 News that 20 of those officers left Seattle for other city and county law enforcement agencies.

The source says the number of younger officers leaving the force and frustrated over city politics is higher than usual.

“Worker bees on the street, they don't feel appreciated. I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” said the source.

The union calls what’s happening a mass exodus -- something it says will have a direct impact on public safety.

“Less officers on the streets, less safe for the citizens -- and when you have all these officers you have invested all this money in and they are leaving for Tacoma, Olympia, Pierce County and Snohomish County,” O’Neill said.

O’Neill says many officers are afraid to do their jobs.

“It's just depressing to serve in a place where many City Council members who are coming out at times with negative comments about the police,” O’Neill said.

The union says Councilmembers Mike O’Brien and Kshama Sawant have been very critical of the police department. They say Sawant calling two officers murderers quickly after an officer-involved shooting was inappropriate.

O’Neill also says there are not enough officers to respond to all the calls, especially for low-level offenses. But he also says politics is playing a role when it comes to going after those low-level crimes.

“It’s told from the start it's not a priority, homeless issues also bring with it car prowls, break-ins, open-air drug market, needles all over the ground, it’s the worst I’ve ever seen it,” O’Neill said.

O’Neill says city leaders are sending the message that officers cannot be proactive about policing and that they are allowing certain crimes to go on without accountability.

The union has been in contract negotiations for the last three and half years and officers have not received a pay increase during that time. It’s certainly a point of contention but O’Neill says many officers are walking away from Seattle not necessarily because of pay but because of city politics.

“I’ve been here since 1980, I’ve never seen the city in the condition it is in. It’s because it’s been allowed on many levels,” O’Neill said.

O'Neill also said many officers are still upset over Interim Police Chief Carmen Best not being considered to become the new police chief.

"When comments are made that the reason we need an outside chief is to change the culture, that is insulting and that's a slap in the face of each and every officer who serves," O'Neill said.

The Seattle Police Department says it would not call what is happening a mass exodus. Officials say they are not seeing a huge spike in officers leaving so far compared to previous years.

And, they say, they continue to recruit officers. In fact, over the last several years they have managed to recruit more officers than those who have left. In 2017, 79 officers left the force but they recruited 102 new people. They also said that they are recruiting more women and minorities into the department.

Q13 News did not hear back from Mike O Brien or Kshama Sawant as of Thursday evening on what the union said about them but the mayor’s office released this statement.

“Few issues are more important than public safety and keeping our families safe, and our officers are being asked to do more in our rapidly changing community. As the fastest growing City in our country, Seattle faces many new challenges at a time that our City needs additional resources from our state and federal government – not less.  As a former federal law enforcement official, Mayor Durkan knows the work of our officers is complex and dangerous and that they are often on the frontlines of assisting people experiencing homelessness and people in crisis. She is very proud of the work they do and knows nationally SPD is rightfully viewed as one of the best police departments in the country. The Mayor will continue to work closely with SPD and our officers to ensure they have the resources necessary to maintain their safety and the safety of our community.”