Snoqualmie Police Department faces staffing shortage

The Snoqualmie Police Department has been slightly understaffed over the last few weeks, as the department is currently looking to fill four vacancies and expects a fifth opening by the end of the month.

“We’re still trying to do ‘no call too small,’” said Snoqualmie Police Chief Perry Phipps. “I’m not going to say it’s been easy, but our response time to any critical call has been the same as it always has.”

Three of the vacancies are for uniformed officers while one is for a detective. Phipps said the department has been able to service all of its patrols, but officers are working overtime to do so. He has also made his school resource officer and detective available for service calls.

Phipps said one of the vacancies, and the expected vacancy, are due to officers retiring. The other three vacancies came Oct. 30, after three officers were laid off for failing to comply with the city’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate.

Snoqualmie Mayor Matt Larson previously told the Valley Record he issued the mandate because he needed city staff, particularly police and fire, to stay healthy and serve the city.

In 2020 and 2021, COVID-19 has been the number one cause of death among law enforcement officers, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page, a nonprofit that tracks police deaths in the United States. According to the nonprofit, 774 officers have been killed in the line of duty since 2020, and 507 of those deaths, about 66%, were caused by COVID-19. That is almost five times greater than the second biggest killer, gunfire, which has killed 102 officers since 2020, according to the nonprofit.

Phipps said the biggest departmental change is expected for non-emergency calls. He said officers will still respond to all calls, but may experience some delays. Non-emergency calls include things like parking violations or abandoned vehicles.

The department expects to be better staffed in the coming weeks. The department is authorized for 26 officers, and three officers, who were on leave due to the vaccine mandate, have received the shot and are expected to return.

“Unless we lose any more officers, we’re going to be able to respond to calls for service like we have in the past,” Phipps said. “If we lose additional officers, for whatever reason, we may have to make additional adjustments.”

Phipps said the department is currently looking at three lateral candidates (officers from another police department) to fill officer vacancies. One of those officers has almost completed the background process and the department is hoping to have them on staff by December.

Lateral officers can join the department fairly quickly, unlike entry-level officers. If the department hires a non-lateral candidate, it could take about a year before they are fully trained. Phipps said while it is beneficial for the department to look at lateral officers, the department is prioritizing quality candidates.

“There are a lot of law enforcement agencies that are trying to find good, quality people,” he said. “Very few departments are fully staffed. It has been a long process over the last two years for law enforcement to retain and recruit officers.”

On average, law enforcement agencies in the U.S. are filling about 93% of available positions, according to a June survey released by the Police Executive Research Forum. Departments with less than 50 officers were having the most difficulty, filling about 91.5% of positions on average.

The nationwide survey also found hiring was down slightly between 2019 and 2020, with a 5% decrease. However, resignations and retirements were up 18% and 45%, respectively.

Vacant positions exist throughout the Eastside, according to Public Safety Testing, a law enforcement job board website. Redmond and Kirkland both reported five openings, while Issaquah had nine police officer openings. The King County Sheriff’s Office reported 57 deputy openings.

“Everyone is looking for good employees, but it’s just hard right now. We’re fairly lucky we’ve had people reach out to us that are interested in coming to our department,” Phipps said. “I think we’re doing okay.”