LYNNWOOD— In continuing our podcast series on public safety, Lynnwood Times journalist Bo Brusco discusses Chief James Nelson of the Lynnwood Police Department (LPD) the unique staffing challenges his department is facing and how social work and police work go hand-in-hand.
Technically, there are only two vacant commissioned positions at the LPD, but there’s more to the story. Of the 71 funded officer positions, ten are still in training, two are on long-term leave, and another two are on family medical leave. Putting all those numbers together, there’s a total of 16 non-working commissioned positions at the department; 20% of LPD’s police force.
“So we have a vacancy factor that I don’t think is sustainable,” says Chief Nelson, “and the city is growing, so I’m working to address that through the budgetary process.”
The LPD’s budget plays a significant role in the current shortage. Before the 2008 recession, the department had sufficient funding for 82 commissioned officers. Fast-forward 14 years, and the department finds itself 11 funded positions shorter with another 16 non-working. All the while, the city’s population has increased by nearly 5,000 since the late 2000s.
Aside from the budget, other contributing factors to the LPD’s shortage include a smaller recruitment pool and increased scrutiny of the profession. Chief Nelson was a young officer at LPD in 1993 and remembers young men and women showing up to take Officer Entrance Exams by the hundreds.
Recalling how back then, prospective police officers took written exams, Nelson says about 800 people showed up to test in the NOAA Western Regional Center in Seattle.
“There were hundreds and hundreds of people testing for one job at the time,” says Nelson. “Contrast that to today, there’s been times—on recent lists—where we’ll have five people that check the Lynnwood box.”
Even though testing for police positions does look considerably different today, as the chief mentioned, the turnout for exams does paint a stark contrast between recruitment then and now. Luckily, Nelson is seeing a “modest increase” in recruitment this year compared to last.
When talking about recent changes in legislation and public sentiment towards the profession, Nelson explains, “undoubtedly, there’s been impact there. It’s reduced the people that are interested in becoming police officers.” A change in attitude towards law enforcement was also a factor noted by Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney and Everett Police Chief Dan Templeman when they discussed staffing shortages in their respective departments.
To combat the staffing shortage, LPD offers hiring incentives like a $20,000 signing bonus for lateral hires and free college books and tuition for officers who’ve been on the force for a year. And as he stated previously, Chief Nelson is looking to collaborate with city leaders to fund more commissioned positions via the budgetary process.
In the wake of the shortage, Chief Nelson spoke highly of his staff for continuing to deliver excellence despite the lack of resources. “I’m really proud of the effort of our staff and the work that they’ve put out there in the face of this really difficult, challenging time. They have completely answered the call. But now I need to make sure that we’re doing what we can to give them some respite.”
July Update: The Lynnwood Times interview with Chief Nelson took place on June 13, 2022. Since then, the City Council approved funding for 5 more commissioned positions. This puts the total number of LPD commissioned positions at 76, the total number of vacancies at 6, and the total number of new hires at 11.