By Erica C. Barnett
Earlier this week, Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat wrote that the Seattle Police Department was recently forced to adopt a new policy to keep track of all the calls they’re no longer able to respond to. “It’s called the ‘Z protocol,'” Westneat claimed. “I don’t know why they picked the letter ‘Z.’ Maybe because it’s the last stop, the end of the road?”
Westneat’s characterization of the new police policy—as an acknowledgment that police are no longer able to do their jobs— was wrong. In reality, the new “z disposition” (not “protocol,” although that does sound more dystopian) means that more people will have eyes on low-priority calls before the police department decides not to show up. That’s because it replaces an older policy, known as “priority call handling,” that was in place for most days during each of the past three years.
Under that policy, most low-priority calls would never even get to the police department; instead, 911 responders would tell callers to report the incident online or call back later. Now, these low-priority calls get dispatched and screened by a police supervisor, who decides whether they merit a police response and what kind of response is appropriate. For people, like Westneat, who blame slow call response times at least partly on what Westneat calls a “political class hostile to the idea of policing,” this greater police involvement ought to be something to celebrate.
If it’s outrageous that the cops won’t show up to protect someone’s property right to his iPhone, then it stands to reason that police should really be everywhere, showing up to investigate every concern, including people in crisis, arguments between parents and children, and complaints about “suspicious” people who “don’t belong” in a neighborhood.
Prioritizing calls by urgency isn’t some new phenomenon brought on by staffing shortages; it’s a basic part of policing in every city in America. In Seattle, the police have long deprioritized calls that fall into the “Priority 3” and “Priority 4” categories, largely because many of them don’t require an immediate police response.
Priority 4 calls are non-emergency calls that may not require any written report. Priority 3 calls include complaints about illegal parking, fireworks illegal bonfires, and off-leash dogs. Many Priority 3 calls are the kind of situations that tend to resolve themselves; others are crimes that don’t require an immediate response, like package theft and car break-ins. Overall, police response times for these kind of calls have been slow for many years, because the police have more important things to do—like responding to Priority 1 (risk to life or serious injury or crimes in progress) and Priority 2 (altercations or situations that could escalate) calls.
The two examples of “Z-Protocol territory” Westneat describes in his column are good examples of Priority 3 calls—calls the police have always responded to more slowly than higher-priority emergencies. Both involve iPhones whose owners (Westneat and “a guy I know,” respectively) decided to chase down the thieves using the “find my iPhone” function, and were annoyed to learn that police don’t drop whatever they’re doing to rush to the scene of a petty theft.
“Now, with police ranks depleted, and at least a portion of Seattle’s political class hostile to the idea of policing, they seem to be instituting white-flag waving as a regular part of the system,” Westneat complained.
This privileged view of what police are for (“What has this city come to when the cops won’t even show up to arrest a perp I’ve tracked and collared myself?”) is easy to dismiss as a macho version of the Karen complex—the idea that the city should fund cops so lavishly that every low-level complaint would get an instant, in-person response.
But demands to have police respond in person to every emergency and nonemergency also serve as a counternarrative to the idea that not every situation requires or benefits from the presence of uniformed officers with guns. If it’s outrageous that the cops won’t show up to protect someone’s property right to their iPhone, then it stands to reason that police should really be everywhere, showing up to investigate every concern, including people in crisis, arguments between parents and children, and complaints about “suspicious” people who “don’t belong” in a neighborhood.
This has been amply debated. I would argue that the debate has even been settled—there is now broad consensus on the basic principle that not every call requires a police response. “Defund the police”—which never happened—was always about how to fill the gaps, by setting up and funding alternative systems for responding to situations that should never have fallen to police in the first place, like mental health crises.
Westneat called “z disposition” a “white flag” to criminals. In reality, it’s an acknowledgement that police resources, which will always be limited, have to be prioritized. Not everything is an emergency. The police, and political leaders, could do a better job of making this fact clear, by communicating transparently that the police will not show up for every kind of call, and by providing and promoting alternative options for resolving issues that aren’t actual emergencies. In the long run, many calls should be shifted away from police, and handed off to more appropriate responders at the point of dispatch.
Let’s keep Z disposition, though—and reserve it for people who treat 911 like their personal complaint line.