Police officer shortage a priority for legislators in short session as poll shows residents concerned on public safety


Lawmakers from across the state convened in Olympia on Monday to begin the short legislative session, with public safety and a need to increase the number of police officers in the state continuing to be a top priority.

With polling showing residents are concerned about crime, legislative leaders and Gov. Jay Inslee said during a press briefing last week that the state has taken steps to improve the state’s criminal justice system, though more will need to be done.

“If we’re going to have any hope of turning the tide on violent crime, on property crime, on auto theft, in our state, we have to rebuild our law enforcement community,” Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, said Thursday.

Speaking on a legislative leadership panel, the majority and minority leaders of the House and Senate said the state will need to continue to address a shortage of police officers, though they differed on how to attract more applicants to the profession.

According to a Crosscut/Elway Poll released ahead of the briefing Thursday morning, public safety is a concern for Washingtontonians, with 23% of respondents citing it as the top legislative priority.

In the poll, 12% of respondents cited crime as their top priority, 7% cited drugs, 4% cited more police, 3% cited safety and public safety specifically and 1% cited gun control.

Public safety ranked second in the poll, behind the 34% who said the economy was their top priority.

“We need to hire more police officers. We don’t need to have the most police officers per capita, but we shouldn’t have the fewest police officers per capita,” House Minority leader Rep. Drew Stokesbary said. “If we could just get to the middle of the pack, that would be a pretty gosh darn good improvement.”

Washington ranked 51st in the country in police officers per capita at 1.36 officers per 1,000 people in 2022. In a December interview with The Chronicle in Centralia, Braun said estimates show it will cost about $1 billion a year to fund enough law enforcement for Washington to rank in the “middle of the pack.”

“On public safety, we know we have considerable concerns in this regard,” Inslee said Thursday. “We want to do multiple things, not just one thing. No. 1, we need additional officers on the street.”

Inslee’s supplemental budget proposal for 2024 includes funding to fill 80 positions at the Washington State Patrol and add a class for training cadets. The proposal also includes $10 million in grants to local government agencies to support recruitment and retention.

“I think what we’re likely to really focus on is continuing to grow the number of police officers in Washington state,” Speaker of the House Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, said on the panel. “We’ve expanded the criminal justice training commission a lot over the past couple of years, and we’ll continue to look at doing that.”

In May, Inslee visited the state’s first regional training center in Pasco. Inslee attended the opening of the Criminal Justice Training Commission center, a regional police academy, in Vancouver on Friday. The regional campuses aim to address a shortage of police officers by allowing training closer to an applicant’s community, reducing a barrier to the profession.

“We have two that are opening up. They have been very successful in recruitment efforts so that we can get more people coming into the profession,” Inslee said Thursday.

“There’s a story I read about a young woman police officer in Pasco who couldn’t become a police officer because she couldn’t go to Burien for the long-term training, but because there’s training now in Pasco, she gets to be a police officer,” Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D- Spokane, said. “I think we have a lot to do on public safety, and I think we’re making steps in the right direction.”

To make meaningful headway, Braun said officer training and standards must be addressed, and reiterated a desire to return to the reasonable officer standard when assessing the use of force, rather than the reasonable person standard. The standard assesses whether a reasonable officer would have used the same amount of force in a scenario, based on the information and factors known at the moment.

“This seemingly simple result is creating enormous conflict in recruiting folks and keeping folks in the profession,” Braun said Thursday. “If we’re really going to have success in the long term in changing the level of crime in our state, we’re going to have to revisit that. As I said earlier, I don’t think anyone disagrees; they should be well-trained, well-supervised, and held accountable. But we ought to treat them fair, to what we train them to do, if we’re going to have any success.”