As Seattle Weighs 911 Options, a Promising Program Shows the Potential, and Limitations, of Community-Based Crisis Response

Reverend Martin Lawson at the scene of a shooting in Pioneer Square on September 20th.

By Paul Kiefer

Just before 7:00 on Sunday night, an argument between two men at the encampment next to the King County Courthouse in Pioneer Square ended in a shooting. The shooter ran away into the night; the wounded man was carried by ambulance to Harborview Medical Center, where he was treated for non-life-threatening injuries.

About 30 minutes later, as a police officer was busy taking down the crime scene tape, a man in a black motorcycle helmet appeared from below the Yesler Avenue Bridge. He walked down the row of tents and tarps along the courthouse wall, asking witnesses for details about the shooter and the victim. He couldn’t get answers about the shooter, but longtime park residents said they didn’t recognize the wounded man—he was new to the encampment. Meanwhile, Seattle police officers standing a few yards away were busy searching a stolen car found on the scene for any evidence the shooter may have dumped when he ran.

The man in the motorcycle helmet was Reverend Martin Lawson, the head of the new four-person Critical Incident Response Team organized by Community Passageways, a South Seattle-based nonprofit that has been a center of attention in this year’s citywide conversations about alternatives to policing.

In the past four months, members of the Seattle City Council and the Mayor have regularly pointed to Community Passageways as a model for community-based public safety. The group already holds three city contracts: two for programs that divert young people from the criminal legal system and provide mentorship and counseling (together totaling $845,000) and a third, $300,000 contract for the Critical Incident Response Team, which formally launched three months ago.

As the city weighs its options for non-police 911 response, the Critical Incident Response Team provides a case study in the role community organizations might play in improving emergency responses to violent crime. Among the clearest lessons of that case study, however, are the team’s limitations. Because their model is grounded in community relationships, the Critical Incident Response Team can only work within the boundaries of their community. Introducing the model city-wide would involve replicating the team, not expanding it.

As new as the team may be, Community Passageways founder and CEO Dominique Davis says the program is modeled after work he’s been doing for years. Davis, a former gang member, first began responding to shootings in South Seattle while working as a football coach nearly two decades ago. “I was getting calls from kids I coached, kids I knew from around the neighborhood who would say, ‘coach, come get me—someone just shot at us, my friend just got shot,” Davis said. “So I started doing critical incident response on my own. I would go pick them up, and sometimes I had to take them to the hospital.”

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Davis says that he soon began to run into barriers to his informal crisis response work. “I would show up at the scene of a shooting, and a kid might be laid out in the back seat of a car with a bullet in him, but he wouldn’t want to go to the hospital because he didn’t want to get interrogated by police,” he said. “So I wound up calling prosecutors in the middle of the night, having them connect me to detectives and saying, ‘look, I need to get this kid to the hospital and I can’t convince him to go if you’re going to interrogate him.'” As Davis started reaching agreements with law enforcement, he says he saw an opportunity to formalize the role of community members in responding to violence.

For much of the past decade, Davis’ criminal justice reform work has centered on diversionary programs: He co-founded the program now known as Choose 180, which works to reduce legal penalties for young people facing misdemeanor charges, nearly a decade ago, and he narrowed his focus to serve gang-involved and incarcerated Black youth (ages 15-25) by founding Community Passageways in 2017. Those programs, he says, rely on pre-existing relationships within Seattle’s relatively small Black community.

Deshaun Nabors, an ambassador-in-training for a Community Passageways diversionary program called Deep Dive, echoed Davis. “This is about as community-based as it gets,” he said. “There’s barely ever more than two degrees of separation between any two people—I mean staff and clients. That’s where [Community Passageways’] soul is.” Nabors is a testament to the organization’s reliance on existing relationships: Davis knew Nabors’ uncle, and reached out to him while Nabors awaited sentencing for a robbery in 2019. Nabors entered the Deep Dive program earlier this year.

In many cases, the Critical Incident Response Team relies on the same community relationships to field emergency calls. Lawson said they’ve received emergency calls from the parents of shooting victims and witnesses who have team members’ phone numbers; in other cases, including the fatal shooting in July near Garfield High School that killed 18-year-old Adriel Webb, team members lived close enough to the incidents to hear the gunshots and arrive at the scene within minutes. The team has received about 15 calls a month so far.

“This is about as community-based as it gets,” he said. “There’s barely ever more than two degrees of separation between … staff and clients. That’s where [Community Passageways’] soul is.” —Deshaun Nabors, Community Passageways ambassador-in-training

Lawson, who joined Community Passageways in March after three years directing a prison ministry in North Carolina, said team members have also taken peacekeeping roles at another 20 gatherings—including memorials, rallies, and a multi-day assignment at the Capitol Hill Organized Protest zone (CHOP)—to de-escalate any conflicts among young people, especially those with gang ties, whom they know through their personal networks.

Lawson said he was on peacekeeping duty at CHOP on June 20th when Marcel Long shot and killed 19-year-old Horace Lorenzo Anderson after a dice game went awry. While he wasn’t able to respond in time to stop that shooting, Lawson said that he and fellow Critical Incident Response Team members rushed to the scene and spotted another several other teenagers—familiar faces—drawing guns to retaliate. “They knew us, we knew them, and we talked them down before anyone else got hurt,” he explained while standing on the corner of 4th and Yesler as witnesses to Sunday night’s shooting started to disperse.

Lawson said he was also present as a peacekeeper at the memorial for Adriel Webb on the night after his killing. Unfortunately, he said, “we’re still so short-staffed, so we decided to leave once it got late.” Not long after the team members left, a still-unidentified gunman shot 19-year-old Jamezz Johnson in the head, killing him.

The unit’s role as crisis responders, Lawson explained, doesn’t look like the job of police—in order to maintain community trust, and particularly the trust of gang-involved youth, it can’t. In fact, Lawson said his team members make a point of not interacting with police when responding to a call or serving as peacekeepers; at the scene of the shooting in Pioneer Square on Sunday, Lawson never came within twenty feet of an officer.

Lawson said the Critical Response Team often interviews witnesses and gathers intelligence after shootings, although they don’t share the intelligence they gather with investigating officers to maintain their network’s trust. Team members’ personal relationships with community members, and particularly with gang-involved community members, have allowed them to keep tabs on the movements of known gunmen and to intervene before gang members can retaliate against their rivals. At least one of the team members is an inactive gang member himself, said Davis; that member maintains a direct line of communication with his gang’s leadership, and Davis claims he used it to stop a retaliatory attack earlier this year. 

But when Lawson arrived at the scene of the Sunday night shooting in Pioneer Square, the limitations of the Critical Incident Response Team’s role as a violence prevention program became clear. After his brief conversations with park residents, Lawson signaled that he didn’t plan to stick around. “When shootings happen in this part of the city, we show up because there’s a possibility that one of the kids we know was involved. Sometimes they come here to sell drugs to the people who live in the park, and if they shoot someone or get shot, we should respond.”

But Lawson said he didn’t hear any indication that the shooter or the victim were within Community Passageways’ loosely defined network. “This is a community in a sense—people in this park know each other,” he said, gesturing to the encampment around him. “But it’s not our community. I don’t have relationships with people here.” For that reason, Lawson said, he wouldn’t walk up the few blocks uphill to visit the victim at Harborview, and he wouldn’t try to gather any more intelligence about the shooting or the shooter: he wasn’t the right person for that task.

Davis acknowledges that the Critical Incident Response Team’s role in violence prevention is limited by their dependence on community relationships, but he doesn’t believe that reduces their value. Lisa Daugaard, the director of the Public Defender Association—the organization that oversees the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program (LEAD) program, which recently contracted Community Passageways to fill crisis response positions in White Center—agrees. Daugaard said that a well-planned crisis response strategy requires a network of specialized responders, not a one-size-fits-all solution.

“The key [to an effective crisis response] is who shows up to help and what kind of follow-up they can provide,” Daugaard said. “The person that comes needs to match the needs of the person in crisis, and they need to offer sustained care and relationships, so we need specialized response teams.” When a community safety group dispatches responders to the scene of a violent crime, she said, “what makes a difference is their ability to follow up, certainly more so than their ability to show up” right away. “[Groups like Community Passageways] can count on their relationships with community members to recognize when another incident is on the horizon. The real point of crisis response should be to prevent the next violent incident from happening.”

The next step, Daugaard said, is expanding and supporting the network of specialized responders to address the full scope of violence in Seattle. Davis shares that vision. “If we really want to reduce the role of policing,” he said, “in the long run, the web of violence prevention services needs to expand and diversify.”

Most of the city’s homicides in recent years have not involved Community Passageways’ target demographic: young, gang-involved Black men from the Central District and South Seattle. This year, less than a third of the killings in Seattle have fit that description. The downtown area and the northern stretch of Aurora Avenue North have seen most of the city’s homicides this year, often involving older victims and perpetrators without any gang ties.

Given those figures, a list of the city’s 32 active contracts with community safety nonprofits provided by the mayor’s office suggests a myopic approach to violence prevention: the vast majority of the organizations receiving city dollars, including Community Passageways, focus their efforts on serving young Black and Brown people, and those that specify neighborhoods generally focus on South Seattle and the Central District. Durkan’s office didn’t respond to questions about their strategies for improving the scope of violence prevention programming.

As a consequence of that narrow focus, Daugaard said, some of the city’s violence prevention needs are left glaringly unaddressed. “To put a fine point on it, Travis Berge would not have been a Community Passageways client,” she said, referring a man with a lengthy history of mental health and addiction-related criminal charges who was found dead after killing his girlfriend at Cal Anderson Park last week. “You could solve for 98 percent of the people in this city with a record of problematic behavior and still not be able to solve for Travis. But if we really want to pursue violence prevention, we need to have someone who specializes in working with people like Travis.”

That said, Daugaard thinks that the growing network of non-police violence prevention organizations —including not just Community Passageways, but also REACH, a team of case managers and social workers who specialize in serving people experiencing homelessness—are evidence that Seattle already has a viable alternative to many of the functions of law enforcement. “The architecture and expertise exists,” she said. “All we need is to turn it on, and that means funding it.”

2 thoughts on “As Seattle Weighs 911 Options, a Promising Program Shows the Potential, and Limitations, of Community-Based Crisis Response”

  1. But how do you know that the gun deaths in Black and Brown communities haven’t gone down because these organizations were funded? And which of the organizations being funded now would you suggest be unfunded to add more of the counselors that could deal with north end violence?

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