Staffing shortages take toll on sexual assault unit at Seattle Police Department

SEATTLE — Staffing shortages with the Seattle Police Department are affecting how cases are handled by the Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Unit.

A memo from a police department captain details the struggle. It said there are cases every week that are not getting assigned because there are simply not enough detectives.

An internal email from Captain Steve Hirjak on May 17th reads, “With our current shortages, we are currently leaving an average of 4.6 cases unassigned per week.” The email says victim advocates will still reach out to all victims, but meanwhile, the police department is “maintaining a list of those cases that we will assign, but currently cannot assign due to staffing.”

Police Chief Adrian Diaz says the police department had 234 detectives four years ago, but SPD is now down to 134 detectives – down by nearly 43 percent. The sexual assault unit is seeing slightly worse percentages. While 10 to 12 detectives were common for the unit pre-pandemic, the department currently has five detectives, including one who was just added in April.

“To say I was disappointed is an understatement,” said State Senator Manka Dhingra (D-Redmond). Dhingra has led several changes in state law to help sexual assault survivors and speed up investigations.

“To now hear that investigations are not being done is truly horrific. There is no excuse for not conducting a comprehensive and timely investigation of sexual assault in our state,” Dhingra said.

KIRO 7 asked Chief Diaz about the internal memo.

“Does it mean some cases aren’t able to be investigated because of the (staffing) situation?” KIRO 7′s Deedee Sun asked Chief Diaz.

“No, we’re working through all of the cases that get assigned,” Diaz said.

“Would you say it’s incorrect that SPD is not investigating new adult sexual assault cases then?” Sun asked. (A Seattle Times article referenced a different internal memo from April 11, where a police sergeant said she was not “able to assign adult sexual assault cases”.)

“I say it is incorrect. We are investigating every case. It’s just taking longer and we’ve had to work through some backlog of cases,” Diaz said.

The police chief says the delays are because the police department is still down 400 officers. However, Diaz says they are working on boosting staff numbers at the sexual assault unit.

“We’ll actually have six detectives by the end of June,” Diaz said. He added that because sexual assault unit detectives require special training, personnel can’t simply be pulled from other units.

“Do you have any timeline for when sexual assault detectives will be back to where we were pre-pandemic?” Sun asked.

“For pre-pandemic, this department has been pretty much devastated from 2020 to 2021. It’s going to take five to 10 years for us to actually get up to the amount of officers that I’ve noted – 1,400,” Diaz said.

Dhingra says even with the staffing challenges, sexual assault victims should be prioritized.

“There are tough decisions that have to be made in all industry, all the time. The question comes to what are you prioritizing?” Dhingra said. “It’s so hard for survivors to tell their story. So when they have the courage to speak up about what happened to them, this is not the way we expect them to be treated,” she said.

However, the police chief says with gun violence and homicide also up, the department is doing its best to balance resources.

“You’re having to make difficult decisions on what services are needed – sexual assault, robbery, homicide,” Diaz said. He said the only department with “couple more officers” was to the alternate response team, which has been handling violent crimes at homeless encampments. Diaz said shootings and shots fired at homeless encampments went down from 30 percent in March to 8.5 percent in May.

As for overtime in the sexual assault unit, an internal email from Hirjak also said he had authorized “as much overtime as detectives can handle in order to keep up.” But Hirjak wrote that detectives were also being “drafted for events and working extensive overtime for those events.”

Diaz said contractually required event staffing such as for Mariners and Seahawks games was impacting every police unit, but said the SPD was declining event staffing when possible.

Hirjak’s memo also detailed which types of cases are currently less likely to be assigned.

“While I must reemphasize that all cases that are reported are considered serious and deserve investigation, due to staffing limitations, the types of cases that are not currently being assigned include the following themes (although cases with these themes are being assigned... these are not bright line classifications):

  • Reporting party unsure if sexually assaulted
  • Indecent exposure incidents
  • Suspicious activity by a stranger that made the reporting party feel unsafe/Suspect made verbal demands only
  • Uncooperative reporting party
  • Reporting party who escaped from police custody prior to Sexual Assault Kit
  • Cases reported after significant delay (months)/Statute of limitations expired

I hope this information is helpful to you,” Hirjak wrote.