1. It’s easy to forget, after the charged backlash election of 2021, that there was a time when the city seemed ready to rapidly replace some police officers with civilian first responders, particularly for low-level crisis calls that are often made far more dangerous by the presence of cops with guns. Since 2020, when protests against police violence galvanized Seattle officials to make pledges to reduce the size of the police force, the city has taken a hard turn toward the rhetoric and policies of an earlier era, one characterized by ever-expanding police budgets and support for law-and-order policies
On Tuesday, the city council’s public safety committee voted to release $1.15 million in unspent funds from the police department’s 2022 budget to help address a level of attrition on the force that several council members described as a crisis. The legislation was a compromise between two proposals by committee chair Lisa Herbold and Councilmember Sara Nelson, who has argued that hiring bonuses (and police spending generally) will help keep Seattle residents safe.
Nelson, who had tried to introduce an ordinance releasing all the money SPD won’t spend this year (about $4.5 million) because the council provided more money for new hires than SPD can spend, said “people are dying” because there aren’t enough police, adding that “our community gatherings” are also “at stake” if the city doesn’t hire more officers quickly.
The compromise measure the council adopted will pay for a new SPD recruiter, relocation expenses for officers moving from elsewhere, an ad campaign to recruit new officers, and a national search for a permanent police chief. Only council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda voted against the plan, arguing that there are other actions the city could take to improve public safety besides a recruitment campaign for police, such as funding shelter and behavioral health services.
2. Mosqueda and most of the current council (though not Nelson) were around in 2020 when the council began discussing ways to replace police with civilian responders for some 911 calls, such as calls about people passed out in public or those experiencing certain kinds of health emergencies. Although the Seattle Fire Department has two Health One units to respond to some medical crisis calls, another response unit called Triage One never got off the ground, thanks in part to a dispute with the firefighters’ union over civilianizing a body of work that has been the job of firefighters.
On Tuesday, SPD data crunchers and Mayor Bruce Harrell’s public safety advisor, Andrew Myerberg, gave the public safety committee an update on the halting progress toward launching an initial pilot program to send civilian responders to certain kinds of calls. Very quickly, though, it became clear that the police department believes that the data the city previously based its support for civilian response—a report by the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform, which found that at least 12 percent of all 911 calls could be transferred to civilian responders right away—is misleading and unreliable.
“Whenever we have a presentation like this, it’s like we have no conception of how a major us city can respond to calls differently, but we have a major US city”—Denver, whose STAR team responds to thousands of crisis calls—”and they’ve been responding to these calls for two years.” —City Councilmember Andrew Lewis
“We don’t believe that was a responsible analysis, and they did not taken into account many of the variables that are critically important to safely answer these calls,” SPD chief operating officer Brian Maxey said. In particular, Maxey and SPD senior research scientist Loren Atherley took issue with the fact that the numbers in the NICJR report (called “Nick, Jr.” for short) didn’t include data about how various call types turned out—for example, whether a call for what seemed like a low-acuity health issue resulted in violence.
The SPD researchers said that before the city can move forward with any kind of pilot program, they need to spend months analyzing actual call data and running it through a complex matrix to determine how risky each call type is in practice; then, and only then, will it be safe for SPD to consider letting people other than armed officers respond to some calls. As an example, Atherley said, the NICJR report only identified 300 types of calls; SPD’s analysis, in contrast, shows that the 400,000 or so 911 calls each year break down into 41,900 different categories. “Policing … has been attempting to find an avenue towards a differential response since the late 1950s,” Atherley noted.
Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who since 2020 has been promoting Eugene, Oregon’s CAHOOTS mobile crisis intervention model as something Seattle could try to emulate, asked why the city couldn’t look at other cities that have already moved toward alternative 911 response models and try to learn from them. “Whenever we have a presentation like this, it’s like we have no conception of how a major us city can respond to calls differently, but we have a major US city”—Denver, whose STAR team responds to thousands of crisis calls—”and they’ve been responding to these calls for two years,” Lewis said.
After the meeting, Lewis said he was encouraged that Myerberg, from the mayor’s office, seemed open to a future pilot program that could launch before SPD finishes its data analysis. “One important point Myerberg made was that we’re not going to necessarily have the cadence of this work be based on the police department” and its schedule, Lewis said.
However, Seattle Police Officers Guild president Mike Solan told Q13 FOX this week that he believes any change that would allow non-police officers to respond to 911 calls would be a subject for mandatory bargaining in the new police contract. SPOG is reportedly already playing hardball about other issues in the contract, including any changes that would subject the police to greater oversight.
3. At a King County Council committee meeting Tuesday, King County sheriff nominee Patti Cole-Tindall noted that the sheriff’s office had provided hiring bonuses to 20 new deputies, including four lateral hires, since the beginning of 2022—not nearly enough to outpace the 47 commissioned officers who left involuntarily or resigned after deciding not to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Overall, 98 sheriff’s deputies and professional staff applied for exemptions from the vaccine mandate; most (81) were requests for religious exemptions.
Council member Reagan Dunn, who opposed the vaccine mandate, asked whether the county should do more to fund more bonuses and incentives for new officers. “In terms of the recruiting,” Cole-Tindall responded, “our signing bonus is great, but we know that Everett and Kent offer $30,000. I’m not convinced that that’s what has somebody coming to an agency. I think it’s more about the culture. It’s more about the opportunity. “