By Paul Kiefer
Last year’s protests may not have resulted in the dismantling of the Seattle Police Department, but as of June 1, they have produced one small shift: Seattle’s 911 dispatch is no longer housed within SPD. Instead, the unit is now a part of the Community Safety and Communications Center (CSCC), a new, independent city department that will, in theory, eventually house other civilian crisis response and public safety programs.
The move isn’t likely to have an immediate impact on who responds to emergency calls; for now, elected officials and advocates for downsizing the police hope that it will leave the door open for more significant changes.
The Seattle City Council proposed moving the dispatch center as part of its plan to shift functions and funds away from SPD last year and “develop a crisis response that doesn’t rely on an armed police response,” as council public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold said in a statement last month. “911 dispatch has been called the gatekeeper for the whole criminal justice,” she said. Citing a 2015 statistic linking more than half of that year’s police killings of unarmed people nationwide by police to 911 calls, Herbold argued that when dispatchers are primed to refer calls to police, the public is at greater risk.
The move to the CSCC is unlikely to prompt any immediate changes in how dispatchers handle 911 calls. “Right now, our move out of SPD is mostly a name change,” said Jacob Adams, the president of the Seattle Police Dispatchers’ Guild. His unit transferred to the CSCC almost intact; the only sworn officers in the unit were a lieutenant and a captain, and they did not move to the CSCC.
More importantly, Adams said, the emergency response options available to dispatchers haven’t changed. “Before the move, we could refer people to the police or animal control; we could transfer them to [the Seattle Fire Department], and we did a lot of referrals to service providers, too,” he said. “And right now, it seems like that will stay the same. We’re always going to be tied at the hip with police and fire.”
But despite their close relationship with the police department, Adams said that his union is eager for a more finely tuned approach to emergency response. “Among other things, it would be really great to have a system in place for us to reach the counselors of people with mental health challenges,” he said. “They could have a plan in place for what to do when their patient needs help, and they could become another entity we could dispatch. We would get to know them, learn their procedures and what they need from us.”
If 911 dispatchers can eventually begin directing more calls to civilian responders, advocates hope that more members of the public will feel comfortable calling for help. “Wouldn’t it be beautiful if someone could call 911 and part of the response was a credible messenger showing up to talk instead of a police officer who can often, simply by their presence, could escalate things?” said Sean Goode, the director of the restorative justice nonprofit Choose 180 and a key figure in King County’s new Regional Peacekeepers Collective, which includes some civilian crisis response teams.
But talk of connecting dispatchers to an array of civilian response teams is still theoretical. While Seattle has a handful of options for non-police crisis response, including Evergreen Treatment Services’ REACH program and the fire department’s growing fleet of Health One teams, those programs operate at very limited capacity. Health One, for instance, responded to roughly 50 calls a month until April, when the fire department added a second team of responders and began responding to twice as many calls.
In the meantime, CSCC interim director (and former SFD deputy chief) Chris Lombard is preparing his new department to direct more calls to civilian crisis responders, but the CSCC hasn’t yet announced changes to dispatch policies and procedures that will help re-direct more calls away from SPD.
From Adams’ perspective, elected officials and department leaders simply need to provide clear guidelines to dispatchers about which callers to send where. “911 is pretty straightforward in that when we gather information, we’re always going to ask the who, what, when, where, and why questions no matter what. From there, we just need the people who are in control to tell us that when we get this type of a call, we’re going to send this team instead of the police.”
But Goode argues that the dispatchers themselves may need to learn to play a more active role in transforming 911 by learning to trust civilian responders. “If a 911 operator doesn’t have a diversity of tools in their toolbox, then their response is always going to be a hammer,” he said—meaning the police. “If you’ve been trained to use that tool exclusively, then you’re going to need some retraining to trust that other tools would work.”
Building trust between dispatchers and responders could be a two-way street. April Heinze, the 911 Operations Director for the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), a professional association for emergency dispatchers, said that while civilian emergency responders need to demonstrate that they can effectively resolve a crisis, the 911 dispatchers themselves will have to weigh their trust in non-police crisis responders against the possibility that responders get hurt.
“There’s going to be some trial and error,” said Heinze, “but we need to consider our liability if we send someone who can’t handle it if things get physical.” To avoid liability, said Heinze, 911 operators will likely still send armed police officers to accompany civilian responders when they suspect there is any risk of a physical confrontation.
Seattle isn’t the only city trying to repurpose its 911 call center, nor is it among the first; Houston, for instance, added mental health clinicians to its dispatch center nearly a decade ago. But rethinking how to manage emergency calls, said Goode, isn’t something to take lightly. “No matter how many other phone numbers we offer for people to call in crisis, people will almost always call 911,” he said. “This is not something we can mess up.”