Seattle Was Supposed to Create Alternatives to Police for 911 Calls. What Happened?

Health One vehicle, 2019
Seattle rolled out its Health One program, part of the Seattle Fire Department, in 2019. Since then, progress on alternatives to traditional policing have been small-scale and ad hoc.Seattle City Council from Seattle, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By Erica C. Barnett

More than two years have passed since the protests against police violence that erupted after George Floyd was murdered in the summer of 2020, and many of the changes the city considered in the aftermath of those protests have failed to materialize.  Beyond the demonstrable fact that the police have not been “defunded”—reductions in SPD’s budget have been modest, and most have come from shifting jobs into other departments, not actual cuts—the whole idea of “community safety” has been largely abandoned in favor of “reform,” an idea that has been around for decades.

In Seattle, initial reforms, which were supposed to be followed quickly by more meaningful changes, included a lot of administrative shuffling, with mixed results. Parking enforcement officers now work for the Department of Transportation, not SPD, a move that has prompted a complaint at the state Public Employee Relations Commission alleging unfair labor practices and that forced the city to refund millions of dollars in parking tickets.

Separately, the city’s 911 system moved out of the police department and into a new department called the Community Safety and Communications Center. Although reformers hoped the CSCC would be able to direct some calls, such as those involving a mental health crisis, to civilian responders, that process has stalled. Earlier this summer, SPD began explaining why.

According to a recent presentation to the city council’s public safety committee by SPD chief operating officer Brian Maxey and senior research scientist Loren Atherley, a frequently cited SPD analysis concluding that 12 percent of 911 calls “can and should be explored for alternative responses starting now,” as a report from then-mayor Jenny Durkan’s office put, it was flawed. The 12 percent number was based on a report from the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform (NICJR)  that found that nearly 80 percent of 911 calls in Seattle were “non-criminal” in nature.

In fact, the SPD officials told the committee, the city should never have used the NICJR report as the basis for staffing recommendations in the first place, because it relied on “perfect,” after-the-fact information about how various types of calls were ultimately resolved. In real time and in advance, “it’s very difficult to tell what is being described over the phone what you are dealing with,” Atherley told the council.

SPD’s “risk matrix” locates different types of 911 calls on a grid with two dimensions: The severity of the outcome and the likelihood it will happen. Currently, according to SPD, the department responds to all calls as if they are in the red “extreme” zone.

“The NICJR report that called for the vast majority of our calls to be categorized as appropriate for civilian response— honestly and directly, we take issue with it,” Maxey added. “The 12 percent that we discussed last summer—I don’t want to call it a back-of-the-envelope analysis, but it was far less sophisticated than the approach we are taking right now.”

That new approach involves using a “risk matrix” to categorize every 911 call based on the likelihood of various outcomes if an armed responder is not present, ranging from “negligible” to “catastrophic”. The risk matrix is based on safety management systems in commercial aviation, which determines risk based on a complex analysis of past events to decide which kinds of risks are acceptable and which must be avoided at all costs. Currently, according to SPD, every call gets treated as if it’s likely to be catastrophic; the point of the analysis is to figure out which calls don’t require an “all-hazards” response.

At a followup committee meeting last month, Senior Deputy Mayor Monisha Harrell said this analysis will enable the city to determine  “what is the consequence of not having an armed response a sworn response? And what is the likelihood that there will be a bad outcome without a sworn response?”

So far, SPD’s analysis has determined that there are about 42,000 different types of 911 calls—meaning that of the 400,000 or so calls the CSCC receives every year, each call type occurs an average of ten times a year. “Maybe that’s too granular,” Deputy Mayor Harrell said in an interview. “Maybe we can we can put those together. But there’s certainly themes, and there’s overlays to that in which we can in which we can say yeah, there are there are a significant number of calls that do not necessarily need a police response.”

The CSCC’s interim director, Chris Lombard, did not respond to requests for an interview.

City council members impatient for changes have questioned whether SPD and the mayor’s office are slow-walking the analysis on purpose to delay taking action. Pointing to cities like Denver, Eugene, Houston, and Albuquerque that have implemented alternative response models—including “co-responder” models that pair police and mental health professionals and triage models where low-risk crisis calls go directly to non-police responders—council member Andrew Lewis argues that there’s no need to wait for a lengthy analysis before starting to reroute some low-level calls.

I don’t know what is unique or special about our city that we cannot do this basic work, but I would like to… figure out how to put forward a very precise, efficient, and disciplined timeline to deliver on this critical body of work and not treat it like it is something that is unprecedented or obscure or difficult to do,” Lewis said at the council’s weekly briefing this past Monday.

In general, existing alternative response models fall into two categories: Co-responder models, where police and mental health providers respond to calls together, and programs where trained civilian responders, such as social workers, respond to some calls on their own.

Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS), in Eugene, uses two-person teams consisting of a medic and a social worker to respond to (and sometimes de-escalate) mental health crises; according to the White Bird Clinic, which has run the program since 1989, staff only requested police backup about 150 times out of 24,000 calls last year. In Houston, a co-responder model called the Crisis Intervention Response Team pairs officers trained in crisis intervention with licensed clinicians who respond to crisis calls; with 12 units, it is the largest crisis co-responder program in the nation. And in Austin, 911 responders ask callers if their call is for police, fire, medical, or mental-health services, routing thousands of calls directly to clinicians.

In comparison to these larger and more sweeping efforts, Seattle’s own alternative responses have been limited and ad hoc, consisting of a patchwork of unrelated programs housed inside the police and fire departments.

For example, a three-vehicle Seattle Fire Department program called Health One sends teams made up of two firefighters and a social worker to some low-acuity calls, such as behavioral health crises. Police with crisis intervention training also work directly with mental health professionals to respond to some calls, and the Downtown Emergency Service Center has a contract with SPD for crisis response. And community service officers—13 unarmed, civilian police department employees—handle some non-emergency calls .

“Why does it take two years to talk to cities that are doing this? We’re two years into this and we keep having similar presentations—why don’t we just get started and start tracking the data?”—Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis

Meanwhile, another new fire department unit called Triage One, which would have responded to “person-down” calls and other low-acuity issues, never got off the ground.

Lewis, a longtime advocate for a CAHOOTS-style mental health responder model, has recently suggested that the city could shift some police responsibilities, such as writing up reports of low-level crimes, to community service officers or parking enforcement officers. But these options wouldn’t fundamentally change the city’s approach to crisis calls, and share a logistical issue with programs like CAHOOTS: They don’t operate 24 hours a day, a shortcoming SPD officials have also pointed out. Any changes to police or parking enforcement officers’ pay or working conditions would be a subject for bargaining.

In fact, none of Seattle’s existing alternatives to a pure police response represent the kind of sweeping changes some council members expected, and the Durkan administration promised, during the city’s period of enthusiasm for “reimagining community safety” two years ago.

Deputy Mayor Harrell told PubliCola that “there’s absolutely a sense of urgency” at the mayor’s office to create alternative response systems, but laid out a timeline for creating a “third department” (in addition to police and fire) that includes issuing a white paper by the end of 2022, “setting up the framework and securing the budget” in 2023, and launching an alternative approach in 2024, in the third year of Mayor Harrell’s term.

“We’re going to outline what is going to be the absolute best structure,” Harrell said. “And then in 2023, we’re going to be working on where those resources come from. We have had some preliminary conversations with [US] Senator [Patty] Murray’s office, to request some potential startup support from the federal government as this will be a new entity that hopefully can also be a blueprint for other jurisdictions.”

Lewis, in an interview, said he understood why the mayor’s office wants more safety analysis, but argues that the city is dragging its feet on changes that other cities implemented years ago. “Why does it take two years to talk to cities that are doing this? We’re two years into this and we keep having similar presentations—why don’t we just get started and start tracking the data?”

At the public safety committee meeting on Monday, committee chair Lisa Herbold pointed to another reason for urgency around establishing an alternative response system for some calls: SPD has lost more than 400 officers and detectives since 2019. SPD is no longer responding to most Priority 3 and Priority 4 calls already, Herbold noted, “so the idea that there would be a lot of risk associated to creating an alternative response to the types of calls that aren’t getting a response at all is a little bit of a head scratcher to me.”

Meanwhile, SPD continues to send officers to encampment removals and to direct traffic at sports events—roles that make them unavailable for emergency response. “Yes, we need to fund full hiring classes for SPD,” Lewis said at a council meeting in June, but there are “big opportunity costs when we’re electing to have officers doing thing people could do when we need them to be doing things only they could do.”

5 thoughts on “Seattle Was Supposed to Create Alternatives to Police for 911 Calls. What Happened?”

  1. 1. There’s no money to build a non 911 response team and it wouldn’t be easy or cheap. Plus there would be a political food fight over who controls this new beast.

    2. Even if you found the money, who on earth would work there? Current there are 300 open positions with non profits helping the homeless? Same population, worse hours and more stress than babysitting a tiny house village.

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