UW police officers blame 'toxic' workplace for staffing shortage

SEATTLE -- Murders. Rapes. Gunmen. Terror threats. Thefts. The University of Washington Police Department deals with crimes any police department does.

But the UW police, fully trained and armed officers, are trying to protect the 70,000 students, employees, and visitors on the Seattle campus on any given day, with just half the number of patrol officers on staff -- from 32 to just 16 or less.

"I don't think the public knows at all," said one UW police officer.

"We literally don't have enough officers to cover the bare minimum," said another.

The KOMO 4 Investigators spoke with 10 current and former UW cops, most speaking on condition of anonymity fearing retaliation from administrators. The staff shortage persists not because of a budget shortfall but because cops are being fired or, as one officer said, are "fleeing in droves" largely due to tension between officers and administrators.

Last year alone, 26 percent left. New hires can't outpace departures.

"It's a hostile environment," said Sarah Gordon, a former UW officer and dispatcher who was among those fired for various reasons.

She's now out of police work and living in California.

"Everybody wanted out," she said. "It's a negative, scary place to work."

Each officer interviewed by KOMO 4 felt the same way. To cover for a shrinking staff, patrol officers are "mandated" work long shifts and on days off.

"And so they're coming in and pulling 10 to sometimes actually 18 hour shifts," said one.

The KOMO 4 Investigators obtained work data for the last 12 months. The data and officer testimony suggest 14-hour days are routine, and 17, 18, and even 20-hour days happen, as do 10-20 day stretches.

One officer said he was given just two days off during an entire month, with turnaround time as little as 4-and-a-half hours. The average cop worked an estimated 48 hours every single week of the year. Some averaged about 55 hours a week for a full year.

Not every officer works a lot of overtime, and a few like it. But many officers feel they have no choice, and say they're too exhausted to safely and fully do the job. Interviewed officers said staff shortage is increasing the risk to students, faculty and visitors.

"Yes," said one officer emphatically, "I do, because we're tired."

Cop fatigue is what they study at the Washington State University Sleep and Performance Researcher Center in Spokane, where they've found tired cops make mistakes, ranging from bad paperwork to life and death decisions. They've determined the kind of hours worked by UW cops can impair them nearly equal to a drunk driver.

"The long hours cops work, the amount of overtime they work and the shift work that they work affects their ability to do their jobs well, and keep people and themselves safer," said Bryan Vila, the Center director.

Vila is a nationally recognized expert and a former cop. Police chiefs and officers seek his advice. When the KOMO 4 Investigators told him the UW police department is without 50 percent of its patrol officers, Vila had a sobering warning: "It's a tragedy. It's a tragedy waiting to happen," he said, "for the community, for the police force as well."

So, how did it get this way? Patrol officers who spoke with KOMO 4 all lay blame squarely at the feet of Police Chief John Vinson, saying he has created a "toxic" workplace.

"They are working hard, working a lot of overtime," acknowledges Chief Vinson.

He concedes he's got a problem, but says the campus is safe. Chief Vinson was asked by the KOMO 4 Investigators: You're running the ship here and you're down a significant number of staff. Some of your staff says it hinders their ability to fully do their job.

"That's an interesting perspective and one where I would have to disagree," said Vinson flatly.

Vinson points to response times, which have remained steady at about three minutes, despite short staff.

"So the notion that the staffing levels have impacted their ability to do their job, I think, is disingenuous," he said, "because there isn't anything they're unable to do because of staffing levels. We have many folks out there able to respond."

Officers interviewed by the KOMO 4 Investigators disagree. During some overnights, they said, there is just one car with two officers in it for the entire campus.

"What you would expect to see when you have a department understaffed is that you don't have enough people to go around," said Vila. "They make fewer arrests for offenses that aren't deemed that serious."

That mirrors what we found. The KOMO 4 Investigators compared the last five years under Chief Vinson with the five years prior to his hiring in 2009. There were 134 fewer arrests, a decrease of nearly 10 percent, despite an increase in crimes categorized as serious, and a large increase in the number of calls to police.

To keep cops on patrol, Vinson has eliminated all detective positions, shifting more serious work to two supervisors and ordering officers to investigate minor crimes in addition to their patrol duties.

"How much time is being spent on investigating that report, getting witness statements, suspect statements, that kind of thing?" said one officer. "That's where things are falling short."

"The cases stack up. And then you don't have enough time and energy to solve those crimes. And it comes back down to staffing," said an officer. "If I'm overworked and I can't do that extra leg work ... then you know what? I'm just going to go ahead and close the case."

We asked the King County Prosecutor's office for the number of UW cases filed for prosecution during the same two 5-year periods. While not exact, their figures suggest about 125 fewer cases prosecuted under Vinson. While there may be various factors, such as changing pot laws, every officer interviewed said they have less time to investigate and catch suspects.

But each officer interviewed agreed cases are going unsolved because of staff shortages.

"I review all the police logs every morning," said Denzil Suite, the University of Washington Vice President for Student Life who supervises Chief Vinson.

He remains supportive of his chief.

"Our first priority will ... always be the safety and security of those in the university community," he said. "We are confident that we are well-equipped to respond to those needs."

Suite underscored, "even with half the staff."

"How exhausted do you want your police officers to be when they're responding to your emergency?" said Michelle Woodrow, who heads the division of the Teamster Union representing UW patrol officers.

The union has filed 22 grievances in four filings against the department including concerns about overtime. Officers also submitted a letter of complaint about Vinson directly to the Board of Regents. It was unsigned because they fear retaliation, yet the writer of the letter told KOMO 4 that every single patrol officer endorsed the letter. And 100 percent of the officers rejected the most recent contract offer, according to several officers who say it was largely a vote of no confidence in their Chief.

"Though our numbers are down right now," he said, "we have a very comprehensive hiring plan in place, an aggressive hiring plan in place to get those numbers back up."

Vinson says shortages of patrol officers are not unique to his administration. He calls the current shortage "temporary." Yet an email from Vinson's deputy chief dated August 27, 2011 to his staff imposed new restrictions for taking time off because of "significant" vacancies in order to "maintain adequate coverage" of the campus. Staff shortages were so severe that, in the email, Vinson's management team declared that "'Operational Need' shall override" contractual agreements for taking time off.

Officers who spoke to the KOMO 4 Investigators believe the patrol staff will continue to have extremely high turnover as long as the work place problems remain.

"The business is to make sure the community is safe and that people feel the department is there for them," said one officer. "And I don't think that's happening."

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