Category: Mental Health

Seattle Court Agrees to Exclude City Attorney’s List of “High Utilizers” from Community Court

By Erica C. Barnett

The Seattle Municipal Court voted Friday to exclude so-called “high utilizers” of the criminal justice system—those who have been accused of misdemeanors more than 12 times in the past five years, and at least once in the past eight months—from community court, a therapeutic court established in 2020 for people accused of certain low-level crimes.

PubliCola reported the news exclusively on Twitter Monday morning.

Davison asked the court to intervene on her behalf in late April, after community court judge Damon Shadid (one of seven municipal court judges, and the only one who handles community court cases) declined her request to immediately bar “high utilizers” from community court.

Currently, people whose charges consist entirely of low-level misdemeanors (a category that excludes more serious crimes like assaults, domestic violence, and DUI) are automatically eligible for community court, which gives defendants access to services without requiring them to plead guilty to a crime. People can only go through community court four times; after that, they have to go through mainstream court, which frequently convicts defendants but does not jail them beyond the time they have already served.

The King County Department of Public Defese analyzed the “high utilizers” list and found that most were homeless or had undergone competency evaluations, an indication of behavioral health disorders.


In meetings between the court and Davison’s office, Shadid had proposed putting off a decision about “high utilizers” until July to allow parties to court deliberations, including the King County Department of Public Defense (DPD), to come up with a plan for this group that went beyond jail and traditional prosecution. 

In a statement, Davison said she was pleased that the court agreed to her request. “Individuals causing the most impact on our community need meaningful accountability for their criminal activity paired with increased behavioral health services,” she said. “The best venue to ensure appropriate accountability and community safety is in Seattle Municipal Court and my team will continue to engage service providers to address underlying behavioral health needs. Addressing the impacts of individuals engaged in frequent, repeat criminal activity is one of the best ways to improve public safety.”

Davison has not proposed any additional spending on behavioral health care, which is mostly funded by the county, not the city. An analysis of Davison’s “high utilizer” list by DPD showed that the list consists primarily of people who are unsheltered or have been through a court-order evaluation to determine their competency to stand trial, a sign of extreme behavioral health issues that are most effectively addressed with health care and treatment, not jail.

DPD director Anita Khandelwal said community court came out of a collaboration between the municipal court, the previous city attorney, and her department, with the goal of charting “a new path for people accused of misdemeanors in Seattle that would reduce the harm of the criminal legal system and quickly address the needs of vulnerable members of our community. While the court continues, we’re sorry to see this collaboration unravel so quickly at the behest of the City Attorney.”

Traditional prosecution and jail, Khandelwal continued, “takes far more time, is very expensive, and fails to produce meaningful results. The City Attorney has produced no data—and I have seen none—that shows that the traditional criminal legal system is effective in changing behavior. Instead, it means people who have significant unmet needs will continue to cycle through a system that we know to be expensive, ineffective, and racially disproportionate.”

In a statement, the municipal court judges said they agreed to the changes Davison requested “in an effort to work collaboratively” with her office and “in the interest of preserving Community Court as an option to address many non-violent misdemeanor cases.” Later, the court amended the judges’ statement (which we quoted on Twitter) to read, “The Community Court agreement already provided the judges with discretion to screen defendants out of Community Court. The changes approved last week will allow the City Attorney to decline to refer a case to Community Court even if it is technically eligible.”

As a partner in community court, Davison has the ability to withdraw the city from the court, effectively shutting it down. This gives her office considerable leverage in negotiations over court rules, including which defendants are eligible.

Community court, the judges noted in their statement, was established as a corrective to a system in which people are already being released onto the street (instead of jailed) and are often hard to track down for court appearances specifically because of “housing insecurity, mental health issues, and substance abuse issues; all issues that Community Court was meant to address.”

Mental Health Advocates Raise Concerns About Psychiatric Commitment Bill

Eastern State Hospital
Eastern State Hospital. Photo by T85cr1ft19m1n, via Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Kiefer

As Washington lawmakers grapple with the shortcomings of the state’s behavioral health system, Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-45, Redmond) is sponsoring a bill that aims to open beds in the two state-run psychiatric hospitals, Eastern and Western State, to provide short-term mental health treatment beds for people with serious behavioral health disorders to stabilize so that a court can decide whether they need to be hospitalized long-term, a process called civil commitment. Neither hospital currently provides any short-term beds; instead, they provide long-term treatment, mostly to people accused of crimes who have been deemed incompetent to stand trial.

The bill would require the state hospitals to admit patients who need to undergo the two weeks of mental health evaluations and treatment needed for a civil court to decide whether they belong in long-term care. It does not set aside a specific number of beds for this purpose.

Across Washington, short-term psychiatric beds are hard to come by, especially for people with a record of violent crime. To fill the gap, Washington courts send hundreds of people each year to regular hospitals, which usually aren’t equipped to provide the level of mental health care that a psychiatric hospital can; some patients with severe behavioral health disorders even end up in emergency room beds, and others are turned away, often into homelessness. In September 2021 alone, King County courts committed 361 people to non-psychiatric hospitals.

Dhingra’s bill would prioritize opening beds at state hospitals for people whose criminal records would make it difficult to place them elsewhere.

“The hospitals are already seeing this group of people. We should take them in when they first come into contact with the civil system instead of waiting for them to commit a felony.”—State Sen. Manka Dhingra

The proposal sparked pushback from mental health advocates, who argue that the bill would only make it more difficult for the state’s Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS)—the agency that runs the two state hospitals—to manage its backlog of patients who either need to get into the hospitals for long-term, court-ordered treatment or who are sitting in the hospitals waiting for housing after their treatment ends. Advocates also say that hospitalizing people who need short-term treatment in large institutions far away from where they live works against the state’s larger goal of treating people with behavioral health disorders in their own communities.

In Dhingra’s view, Eastern and Western State Hospitals should help meet the demand for short-term treatment—especially for people that other hospitals refused to treat because of their criminal record. “The hospitals are already seeing this group of people,” she said. “They don’t get the treatment they need in the civil system; they then commit felonies and wind up at Western State. We should take them in when they first come into contact with the civil system instead of waiting for them to commit a felony.” Using the state hospitals may be a temporary solution, Dhingra added, until more local psychiatric beds open; since 2016, DSHS has been investing in small, community-based treatment facilities across the state, but that effort hasn’t met the demand for beds.

Some mental health advocates and DSHS itself, however, say Eastern and Western State Hospitals stopped handling short-term treatment for a reason. During a hearing on the bill last week, DSHS Assistant Secretary Kevin Bovenkamp told lawmakers that opening the hospitals to short-term patients again “moves us in the wrong direction.”

“We worked for years to shift the focus towards getting people places to recover in their own communities,” said Laura Van Tosh, an advocate who previously spent time as a patient at Western State Hospital. “If this plan goes through, it will upturn all those efforts. The last thing we want to do is put more people in the state hospitals.”

From Van Tosh’s perspective, while the bill might get people into psychiatric beds faster, a short stay in a large state hospital is far less useful in a patient’s recovery than treatment in their own community. “From where I stand, this doesn’t seem patient-centered, and it doesn’t seem focused on recovery,” she said. “It just seems like a mechanism to get homeless people off the streets and keep them in hospital beds for who knows how long.” People experiencing homelessness are more likely to be civilly committed, and people who have been civilly committed are more likely to become homeless after they are released Continue reading “Mental Health Advocates Raise Concerns About Psychiatric Commitment Bill”

Hospital Overcrowding Prompts Push For Guardianship and Informed Consent Reforms

King County COVID data as of January 14, 2022

By Leo Brine

Seattle Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43) is working on a bill to reform Washington’s informed consent and guardianship laws, which have prevented hospitals from discharging some patients who need long-term care at a time when hospitals need as many beds as possible to handle the latest spike in COVID cases.

Washington’s guardianship and informed consent laws have prevented hospitals and family members from transferring some patients who cannot make decisions for themselves into long-term care facilities even when a family member has given consent. Macri has a bill cued up which will address the problem, she said.

While the state’s informed consent laws empower family members to make many decisions for incapacitated people, they don’t allow incapacitated patients to leave hospitals for long-term care without the consent of a court-appointed guardian. The reason? Money: Guardians are responsible for paying for long-term care.

It can take months for courts to establish someone as a patient’s guardian, so Macri wants to amend the state’s informed consent laws to make it easier for patients to move to long-term care facilities while allowing courts to establish guardianship for the patient’s long-term financial management later.

Right now, hospitals have patients occupying hospital beds that could be used to treat people with acute needs because they don’t have a paper saying who’s going to front the bill.

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As of January 12, Washington state has 2,062 COVID patients in hospitals with 172 on ventilators, according to state data. In King County, hospitalizations more than doubled between January 2 and January 9, county data shows.

Hospitals in Washington have said they are in “a state of crisis” after operating for months at high capacity and now with omicron sending more people to the hospital than ever before.

The Washington State Medical Association sent Governor Jay Inslee a letter last week saying that hospitals are in “a state of crisis” and asking the governor to change guardianship laws so that family members can agree to transfers. The letter included the draft of a proclamation that, if Inslee signed, would have that efect.

However, Inslee said last week that he does not have the executive authority to make the proclamation because, “you have to comply with federal law to admit someone to a long-term care facility. I cannot waive federal law.”

Instead, the governor—inadvertently highlighting the need for Macri’s fix—announced Thursday that he hopes to increase the number of social service workers who work on patient transfers. He also proposed create a program to expedite the process of establishing guardianships and increase the number of guardians, which could help reduce the backlog of patients stuck in hospitals. “[This] may involve more resources for the superior court,” he said. Additionally, to help long-term care facilities take on more discharged hospital patients, he’d add new health care workers to long term care facilities.

Macri says her bill is still necessary because establishing guardianship “can still take months even with the steps that [Inslee is] putting in place.” Her bill will change informed consent laws to allow family members, those with power of attorney, and other surrogate decision makers to consent to a patient’s transfer to a long-term facility.

Macri plans to meet with the governor’s team about her bill to hammer out how it fits in with Inslee’s plans and to address some concerns the governor’s office has around informed consent. One potential sticking point is that, according to Macri, Inslee’s team is sticking with their position that only guardians should be able to make these transfers happen.

Meanwhile, patients without guardians are not the only ones who are having a hard time getting out of hospitals. Often, there are no shelter beds available for homeless patients. And some patients came to the hospital from long-term care facilities but are unable to go back into their care because of understaffing.

Appeals Court Rules State Must Pay When People With Disabilities Wait in Jail for Services

A “rubber room” at the Snohomish County Jail in 2013, used to hold people with serious mental illnesses in isolation.

By Paul Kiefer

The Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) won’t appeal a ruling by state Court of Appeals that could enable people held in jails for weeks while awaiting mental health evaluations to receive financial compensation for their lengthy, and possibly unconstitutional, confinement.

The ruling signals a possible turning point in a push by public defenders and disability rights advocates to overhaul how Washington’s criminal legal system treats jailed people with serious mental illnesses.

When someone’s mental health during and after an alleged crime comes into question, the state gives them a “competency evaluation” to determine whether they are competent to stand trial. If they’re not competent, their case can be paused while they are treated at a state facility, where staff can “restore” them to competency by using medication and therapy to treat their mental illness. The goal of restoration is to return people to a point where they can understand the charges against them, return to jail or the community, and eventually go to trial.

The ruling, which the Court of Appeals issued at the end of November, centered on Shymila Luvert, who spent four months languishing in a jail cell last year while awaiting a mental health evaluation that never came. Luvert, charged with a second-degree assault and booked into King County’s Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent last spring, didn’t appear to understand what was happening to her.

The push to force DSHS to compensate individuals with disabilities for long wait times is new, but the underlying problem is not. The number of people with mental disabilities and illnesses left waiting for mental health services in jails across Washington has risen steadily for years.

A King County judge ordered that Luvert receive a competency evaluation in her jail cell. When she refused to engage with the evaluators from DSHS, the court changed strategies, directing the department to move her to Western State Hospital in Lakewood for an inpatient evaluation within a week.

As Luvert waited for a bed to open, she sank deeper into her mental health crisis. “It was clear that she was not understanding what I was doing there, or what I was talking about,” said Ramona Brandes, the King County public defender who represented Luvert. “She was just sitting in jail, and she didn’t understand why. It was doubly sad because I couldn’t move her case forward in any way and I couldn’t get her the services she needed.”

As weeks turned to months, the court gave the department an ultimatum at the end of July: Find a bed for Luvert in less than a week or temporarily release her. When DSHS didn’t comply, the court ordered the department to pay Luvert $250 for each day she spent in jail beyond the first two weeks of her stay.

The push to force DSHS to compensate individuals with disabilities for long wait times is new, but the underlying problem is not. The number of people with mental disabilities and illnesses left waiting for mental health services in jails across Washington has risen steadily for years. Many spend their time in isolation cells with only occasional visits from mental health care providers, and their mental and physical health often deteriorates as time drags on. Some people spend more time in jail waiting for evaluation than they would have if they were simply convicted of the crime and sentenced to jail time.

In 2014, a group of public defenders and mental health advocates sued DSHS and its two major hospitals in federal court on behalf of more than 100 defendants statewide who had languished in jail while waiting weeks or months for evaluation or to have their competency “restored.” That case, known as Trueblood—named for one of the public defenders who filed the lawsuit—appeared to mark a turning point.

“Jails are not hospitals, they are not designed as therapeutic environments, and they are not equipped to manage mental illness or keep those with mental illness from being victimized by the general population of inmates,” US District Judge Marsha Pechman wrote in her ruling in April 2015. The court ordered the state to complete initial in-jail mental health evaluations within two weeks, and to transfer anyone who does not appear mentally competent to a state psychiatric hospital within seven days.

But in the years since the case, DSHS hasn’t been able to consistently reduce wait times for people in need of competency evaluations or restoration. “[Trueblood] gave us all this hope that there is going to be a change, that things were going to get better,” Brandes said, “and that DSHS was going to start transporting people in a timely fashion. And then they didn’t.”

Instead, the department has paid more than $85 million in contempt fines to the federal court, along with millions to county courts. Those dollars were set aside to pay for new mental health services, staff and facilities, both in county jails and in DSHS hospitals. In 2018, DSHS reached an agreement with disability rights advocates in federal court to take a new approach. Rather than paying contempt fines, the state agreed to devote more resources not only to meeting the court’s intake timelines, but to scaling up diversion and crisis intervention programs. The court didn’t fully waive contempt fines; instead, DSHS has accrued another $100 million in fines that it will need to pay if it can’t meet its promises to improve wait times and diversion programs.

“[Trueblood] gave us all this hope that there is going to be a change, that things were going to get better, and that DSHS was going to start transporting people in a timely fashion. And then they didn’t.” —King County public defender Ramona Brandes

Kim Mosolf, the director of the treatment facilities program at Disability Rights Washington—the nonprofit that negotiated the settlement with DSHS in 2018—said the new emphasis on diversion, which keeps people out of both jails and hospitals, is a way to stem the flow of people with disabilities into jail and psychiatric hospitals. DSHS, she said, “had been trying to build their way out of the Trueblood contempt fines for several years without luck,” opening hospital beds slower than the demand for them rose.

The number of people who need in-patient evaluation or restoration outpaced the department’s ability to open new hospital beds and hire staff, keeping wait times long for people awaiting transfers from jails. The COVID-19 pandemic, which forced Western State Hospital to temporarily pause intake to contain an outbreak, only exacerbated delays.

Mosolf added that adding beds to speed up the process of competency restoration isn’t a long-term fix. “Restoration is not treatment in the way that most people consider treatment,” she said—the purpose of restoration is to make a patient competent enough to stand trial, even if their improvement is temporary. “The state’s own data shows that experiencing restoration does not lead to longer-term stability and health for people—so investing in more inpatient restoration beds is actually a very bad investment in terms of the returns.” Continue reading “Appeals Court Rules State Must Pay When People With Disabilities Wait in Jail for Services”

Family of Charleena Lyles Reaches $3.5 Settlement with City of Seattle for 2017 Shooting

Charleena Lyles (Courtesy of the Lyles family)

By Paul Kiefer

After a grueling 13-hour mediation on Monday night, the family of Charleena Lyles reached a $3.5 million settlement with the City of Seattle and two Seattle police officers, ending a four-year-long wrongful death lawsuit that began when the officers shot and killed Lyles in her Magnuson Park home in June 2017.

“This has been a horrible case. Shameful,” said Karen Koehler, the lead attorney representing Lyles’ family, during a press conference at the Stritmatter law firm on Tuesday afternoon. On a television behind her, Lyles’ eldest daughter—watching from her aunt’s house in California, seated in front of a Christmas tree—leaned off-screen to cry.

Lyles, who was 30, called 911 from her apartment on June 18 to report a burglary. She was known to the Seattle Police Department—and to Seattle’s criminal legal system in general—both as a survivor of domestic violence and someone struggling with mental illness. At times, her illness escalated into full-blown crises. Only two weeks earlier, for instance, officers arrested Lyles in her apartment after she brandished a pair of scissors and threatened to transform into “the wolf” while reporting a domestic violence incident. After pleading not guilty to harassment and obstruction charges in Seattle Municipal Court, Lyles appeared in Seattle’s mental health court on June 13, where a judge ordered the county to release her from jail.

Lyles did not know officers Jason Anderson and Steven McNew, who appeared at her door on June 18 to respond to her burglary report. On his way to the low-income housing complex where she lived, Anderson received an alert on his in-car monitor about Lyles’ recent mental health crisis; he called for backup from McNew, who had received crisis intervention training. But when they arrived at her apartment, Lyles’ family said, the officers were woefully unprepared.

In the family’s original lawsuit, attorneys argued that Anderson and McNew failed to perform their duties by entering Lyles’ apartment without a de-escalation plan. McNew, the more experienced officer, allowed Anderson to take the lead; at times, McNew turned his back to Lyles.

Anderson looked up from his note pad and saw Lyles holding a knife. From her family’s perspective, she was spiraling into another crisis. The family argues that the officers should have cleared the knives from Lyles’ kitchen counter to reduce the chance of a confrontation.

Anderson immediately drew his gun and pointed it at her. McNew, snapping to attention, told his partner to use a Taser to subdue Lyles. “I don’t have a Taser,” Anderson replied.  Although all SPD officers are required to carry a “less-lethal” alternative to their gun, Anderson had left his Taser in his locker because its battery was dead. According to Lyles’ family, both officers then escalated the confrontation by shouting at Lyles to “get back.” When she didn’t, the pair shot her seven times. As she lay dying, her infant son crawled onto her chest. Three of her four children were only feet away when she died.

The Office of Police Accountability ultimately suspended Anderson for two days as punishment for not carrying his Taser, but SPD determined that the shooting was justified, in part because Lyles’ bulky coat might have deflected a Taser, but especially because Lyles was carrying a knife—a reason, the department argued, for the officers to believe their lives were in danger.

Lyles’ family’s lawsuit didn’t focus on whether the officers were in danger. “We went to state court and brought a negligence allegation,” said Edward Moore, another attorney for the Lyles family. “That allowed us to look at the officers’ actions leading up to [the shooting.] We were allowed to make allegations that they didn’t plan properly … They had been trained on de-escalating knife attacks with tasers. It would have required an additional officer, and it would have required a Taser.” Continue reading “Family of Charleena Lyles Reaches $3.5 Settlement with City of Seattle for 2017 Shooting”

SPD Hosts Relationship Seminar by Demoted Ex-Chief, Compassion Seattle Passes the Hat; Ban on SPD Travel to Israel Fails

1. The Seattle Police Department’s ongoing push to scale up its officer wellness program is veering into intimate territory: Next week, former SPD assistant chief Nick Metz will host a dinner and relationship counseling workshop for officers alongside his wife, Dr. Sara Metz—a clinical psychologist who specializes in first responders. To sweeten the deal (and extend the “intimate” atmosphere?), the department is offering a limited number of complimentary hotel rooms to couples who attend the workshop.

After two years of staggering attrition, officer wellness programming has taken on a new significance for SPD. According to a flyer distributed to department employees, the Metz workshop is meant to address “relationship issues typically encountered by police officers”—a complaint that long predates the department’s current staffing crisis.

In November 2013, Interim Chief Jim Pugel demoted Metz from assistant chief to captain during a brief purge of department leaders Pugel believed were impediments to the reforms outlined in Seattle’s consent decree: an agreement with the US Department of Justice to correct a pattern of racial bias and excessive force by SPD officers. Within two months of his demotion, Metz briefly returned to the rank of assistant chief under new Interim SPD Chief Harry Bailey before leaving the department entirely to lead the Aurora, Colorado police department in 2015.

Metz retired in October 2019 to join his wife’s counseling practice; his retirement came on the heels of the death of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old unarmed Black man whom Aurora police officers placed in a chokehold while paramedics administered a fatal dose of ketamine. A Colorado grand jury indicted three of the officers and two paramedics for manslaughter and negligent homicide earlier this month.

The campaign, which raised more than a million dollars in its effort to get Charter Amendment 29 on the ballot, owes Seattle-based Foster Garvey more than $216,000 for legal services, according to reports filed at the Public Disclosure Commission—and that’s on top of $44,000 the campaign already paid the firm.

At the time of his exit from SPD, Metz was also at the center of a lawsuit against the department by a sergeant who said she experienced retaliation for complaining about Metz’s preferential assignment of lucrative overtime hours to a small group of his closest friends. A King County Superior Court jury later ruled against the department, awarding $2.8 million to the sergeant and a captain who sided with her.

2. Compassion Seattle, the business-backed campaign that wanted to change the Seattle City Charter to require the city to add thousands of shelter beds with no new money in order to keep public spaces “free and clear” of encampments, is asking supporters to help them pay their debts, including hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills to defend the initiative. As PubliCola reported, a King County Superior Court judge roundly rejected the measure as outside the scope of the initiative process, a ruling that the state Court of Appeals upheld one week later.

In an email to supporters, the campaign declared a kind of moral victory, crediting themselves with “chang[ing] the civic conversation” by raising homelessness as an issue. “Help us communicate our message effectively and retire our debt,” the email says.

The campaign, which raised more than a million dollars in its effort to get Charter Amendment 29 on the ballot, owes Seattle-based Foster Garvey more than $216,000 for legal services, according to reports filed at the Public Disclosure Commission—and that’s on top of $44,000 the campaign already paid the firm.

Other notable campaign debts and expenditures include: $22,000 to the Downtown Seattle Association;$232,000 to political consulting firm Cerillon N4 Partners; $98,000 to political consulting firm Blue Wave Partners; $151,000 to political consulting firm The Feary Group; and $1.1 million to the Utah-based signature-gathering firm Landslide Political.

In its letter, the Compassion Seattle campaign notes that “We successfully gathered more than 60,000 signatures on petitions.” That depends on your definition of “success”; in reality, almost half of those signatures were tossed out as invalid, meaning that the campaign and its supporters—mostly large downtown real estate interests—spent about $32 for each of 34,714 valid signatures. 

3. After a nearly three-hour debate, the city council voted narrowly to reject Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s “End the Deadly Exchange” legislation, which would have banned Seattle police officers and management from training in, participating in “exchange” programs with, or taking any official travel to Israel. Although Councilmembers Andrew Lewis and Lorena González abstained during a committee vote on the bill, saying they hoped to work with Sawant to refine the legislation to make it a more neutral condemnation of countries that commit human rights abuses, they both voted “no” in full council, along with Dan Strauss, Debora Juarez, and Alex Pedersen. Continue reading “SPD Hosts Relationship Seminar by Demoted Ex-Chief, Compassion Seattle Passes the Hat; Ban on SPD Travel to Israel Fails”

Seattle’s Newest Department Aims to Change the City’s Response to Crisis Calls

Health One, a Seattle Fire Department program that responds to low-acuity crisis calls, is a relatively new alternative for 911 dispatchers.
Health One, a Seattle Fire Department program that responds to low-acuity crisis calls, is a relatively new alternative for 911 dispatchers.

By Paul Kiefer

The last time Seattle launched a new department—Seattle Information Technology, which brought IT staff from across the city under one roof—the consolidation took years. “In contrast, we had about eight months,” said Chris Lombard, who leads the city’s newest department: the Community Safety and Communications Center (CSCC), which began work at the beginning of June.

In some ways, creating the CSCC involved fewer moving parts than the infamously messy set-up of the massive citywide IT department. When plans to move the parking enforcement unit to the CSCC fell through this spring, Lombard was left overseeing a single, crucial, service: Seattle’s 911 call center. The center, historically a civilian unit inside the Seattle Police Department, will play a key role in the city’s efforts to shift away from a police-centric approach to public safety, and the city’s decision to house the 911 call center in the department was one of the first concrete steps in that effort.

On the surface, the 911 call center hasn’t changed much since it left SPD. The dispatchers sit in the same cubicles in the same unmarked office. On one side of the room, call-takers try to draw out the most pertinent information from people in distress while racing the clock; on the other, dispatchers direct police officers to high-priority calls; and in the middle, a team of supervisors watches from a raised platform.

When a call-taker thinks that an emergency would be better handled by the Seattle Fire Department—an agency with more response options than SPD—they reach out to the fire department’s internal dispatch center, which was Lombard’s turf before he joined the CSCC. “Right now, [the fire department] is the gateway to a lot of resources, like mental health care or clinical referrals,” Lombard explained. “On our end, we’re still trying to figure out how we can connect people to more resources.” Last year, the 911 center transferred 17 percent of calls to the fire department.

Brandie Flood, the director of community justice for REACH, cautioned that housing and health care providers who can offer long-term support to people in crisis are already overstretched. “We could add a bunch of other response teams, but if there aren’t new or expanded pathways to get people in crisis the kind of back-end services they need, we just have too many cooks in the kitchen,” she said.

But the city’s goal in transferring the 911 call center to the CSCC wasn’t merely to reduce the role of the police department on paper. Practically every elected official and candidate for city office has voiced their support for scaling back SPD’s responsibilities by diverting more emergency calls to non-police responders. As new options become available to respond to emergency calls, the 911 dispatchers will be responsible for deciding who arrives on the scene first—police, the fire department, or civilian mental health specialists, for example.

For now, dispatchers are still limited to two options: police or fire. The city’s big plans for the CSCC are still on the horizon, and in the meantime, Lombard and his staff are sorting out the basics. The center hired its first human resources staffer within the past month, but other vacancies have been hard to fill. “Even though 911 operations were a civilian section within SPD, a prospective applicant had to go to SPD’s website to find job listings,” he explained. “It’s no secret that the police department has been struggling to get recruits, and [the 911 center] got caught downwind and fell victim to the same trend.”

At the same time, Lombard added, the existing CSCC staff are still processing the significance of their departure from SPD. For some long-time employees who were loyal to SPD, Lombard said that the shift has been “almost like a divorce.” But for other employees who felt taken for granted by SPD, the prospect of eventually taking a more active role in the city’s public safety system is a welcome change. “This is exciting for a lot of the staff,” said Lombard. “For the first time, they feel like the focus will be on us and what we can add to emergency response.”

The other potential game-changer in reducing the number of calls the 911 center refers to police is the rollout of the state’s 988 system next year. During the last state legislative session, lawmakers approved a plan to stand up a new statewide crisis hotline for mental health emergencies

One of the first chances for dispatchers to play a larger role in the crisis response system could come with the eventual launch of a program tentatively known as “Triage One,” a team of civilian responders who the 911 center could dispatch in lieu of police to respond to low-acuity, non-medical crisis calls. The Triage One proposal is modeled partially after the fire department’s Health One units, and the city council is still considering whether to house the program in the fire department or the CSCC.

If the Triage One units become part of the CSCC, 911 dispatchers would be able to communicate directly with the units, giving dispatchers a third option (in addition to police and the fire department’s internal dispatch system) when deciding where to direct an emergency call.

The other potential game-changer in reducing the number of calls the 911 center refers to police is the rollout of the state’s 988 system next year. During the last state legislative session, lawmakers approved a plan to stand up a new statewide crisis hotline for mental health emergencies. The 988 hotline will have three dispatch centers across the state, including one that covers all of King County; among other responses, the dispatchers will be able to send civilian mental health specialists to respond to emergencies. Continue reading “Seattle’s Newest Department Aims to Change the City’s Response to Crisis Calls”

“Compassion Seattle” Is Dead. Now What?

By Katie Wilson

Two years ago, Seattle’s corporate set learned that money can’t buy you the Seattle City Council. Now they’re finding out it can’t even buy a measly amendment to the city charter.

I’ve written before about how Charter Amendment 29, promoted by the business-backed group “Compassion Seattle,” was an expensive unfunded mandate with troublingly unclear implications for the city’s approach to unsheltered homelessness. Last month, a King County Superior Court judge struck it from the ballot for wholly different reasons: It’s a misuse of the initiative process, conflicting with state law and usurping the city’s legislative prerogatives. The state Court of Appeals denied Compassion Seattle’s appeal of the ruling on Friday.

To be clear, I wasn’t an impassive observer in this process. The organization I work for, the Transit Riders Union, was a plaintiff in the lawsuit along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness. TRU is also a part of House Our Neighbors!, the grassroots coalition convened by Real Change to oppose Compassion Seattle.

So yeah, I feel like running some victory laps. But going in circles, even metaphorically, is the last thing to be doing right now. There’s a good reason many thousands of Seattleites would have voted for the measure: It sounded great. It promised to do something about the ever-worsening homelessness crisis. With compassion, no less! It was a false promise, but attractive because the crisis is so vast, so heartbreaking and so visible.

So, what now? Here are four ways forward.

1. The city should make it easier, faster and cheaper to site and build shelter and permanent housing. CA 29 promised to do this by expediting project applications and waiving land use code requirements and permitting fees. This is one part of the measure that was actually good policy, but it also illustrates why the whole enterprise was so wrongheaded. Land use and zoning falls under the purview of the city’s legislative process and can’t be decided by initiative.

There’s a good reason many thousands of Seattleites would have voted for the measure: It sounded great. It promised to do something about the ever-worsening homelessness crisis. With compassion, no less! It was a false promise, but attractive because the crisis is so vast, so heartbreaking and so visible.

Siting shelter and housing for homeless people is often controversial. Suppose CA 29 passed and the city began fast-tracking projects; if disgruntled neighbors sued, they’d probably win. The Seattle City Council already took action in early 2021 to make it easier to site and build permanent supportive housing. The Urbanist reported on that effort here. Next year, Seattle’s new mayor and council should work together to make more changes like these the right way, by developing and passing legislation to allow projects to move forward faster.

2. The city should make smart use of new revenue flowing in from the JumpStart tax—a payroll tax paid by Seattle’s largest corporations—as well as the remainder of the city’s federal American Rescue Plan Act allocation, which will be budgeted this fall. JumpStart’s first year was focused on economic relief from the COVID-19 crisis. But that’s about to change. “Starting next year, two-thirds of the JumpStart funds are for housing and homelessness,” Seattle Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda said. “That’s about $135 million annually for emergency housing, long-term housing solutions and everything in between.”

In July, Mosqueda and her council colleagues passed legislation creating a dedicated fund for revenues from the new tax, to help ensure they’re funneled to their intended uses.

This by itself won’t be enough to create 2,000 units of “emergency or permanent housing” in a single year, as CA 29 arbitrarily stipulated, let alone all the permanent supportive housing and deeply affordable housing that’s needed, but it’s a great start.

3. To go further, the city will need to explore new sources of progressive revenue. Last fall, King County enacted the Health Through Housing Initiative, funded by a one percent sales tax, to scale up its efforts on chronic homelessness; that’s not a progressive tax, but it is buying a lot of hotels. Seattle can do its part without further taxing poor people. Should it raise the JumpStart tax? Design a city income tax? Siphon off some unearned wealth? Push for other new options from the state legislature? City leaders should create a task force made up of policy experts and community stakeholders to research what’s possible and report back on the options.

4.  One of the most unrealistic pieces of CA 29 was the suggestion that the city should suddenly (and with no new funding) start playing a major role in providing mental health and substance use disorder treatment, services that are currently managed mainly through county and state agencies. The city should acknowledge that behavioral health services are a county and state responsibility and work in partnership with King County and state legislators to fund behavioral health care for people experiencing homelessness.

One promising idea comes from 43rd District Rep. Frank Chopp, who points out that health care is the proper responsibility of state government . He’s developing a proposal called “a prescription for a home,” which he hopes to advance in next year’s legislative session. It begins from the recognition that chronic homelessness is usually related to chronic health conditions, which are nearly impossible to heal or treat successfully without housing. Just as the state now funds health care through Apple Health for qualifying individuals, people experiencing chronic homelessness would have a right to a home and wraparound services.

“The core of the program would be funded right out of the state general fund,” Chopp said. Phased in over time, “it would be part of the state Medicaid budget, like nursing homes, like home care, like prescription drugs.” With the state taking on more responsibility for addressing chronic homelessness, local governments could focus on building housing for the rest of the homeless population and for low-wage workers.

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So much for what I think; with CA 29 off the ballot, what are its backers and opponents up to?

“We need to start treating housing as a human right, not an exploitative venture,” said Tiffani McCoy, advocacy director at Real Change. “For-profit housing will never be the answer to our housing needs. We need to immediately start shifting housing away from the private, for profit sector and into the public sphere. We need social housing now.” The House Our Neighbors! coalition, she says, isn’t going away — it’s planning its next steps.

Compassion Seattle, meanwhile, is urging supporters to pay attention to the city elections.

“We can still make our voices heard in the elections for Mayor, City Council, and City Attorney,” the campaign said in a statement. “In each race, the difference between the candidates is defined by who supports what the Charter Amendment was attempting to accomplish and who does not.”

Continue reading ““Compassion Seattle” Is Dead. Now What?”

New Report Finds Serious Shortfalls in Mental Health Care for Washington Prisoners

A cell (left) and recreation area (right) in the Intensive Management Unit at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County (Photo: Office of the Corrections Ombuds)

By Paul Kiefer

A new report from Washington’s Office of the Corrections Ombuds (OCO) raises concerns with the consequences of a shortage of mental health staff and treatment options in the state’s prison system, including the increased risk of suicide, self-harm, or placement in solitary confinement for inmates with unmet mental health needs.

The report, which the OCO released on Wednesday, is based on a review of roughly 335 complaints about alleged shortcomings in the state Department of Corrections’ (DOC) handling of mental health care, as well as interviews with incarcerated people and DOC staff and administrators.

In its review of mental health care options at state prisons, the OCO found that many problems hinged on the dearth of treatment providers available to the roughly 15,000 people in DOC custody. Facing overwhelming demand for mental health treatment and screenings, the DOC’s current providers handle overwhelming daily caseloads, sometimes without a designated work space to offer privacy to their patients. For people in custody, the shortage of treatment providers translates into long wait times for therapy appointments. Residents of the state’s 12 work release facilities, as well as inmates in some smaller prisons, have even fewer options for mental health care—in fact, the DOC doesn’t offer mental health treatment to work-release inmates at all.

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But the report also outlined other problems in the DOC’s response to the mental health needs of incarcerated people, including multiple instances in which prison staff did not properly document inmates’ risk of self-harm or suicide. The OCO has highlighted the same problems in earlier reports, including an April 2021 review of two deaths by suicide in DOC facilities last year that connected mishandled mental health screenings as a to both deaths.

The OCO’s review also raised concerns that prison staff rarely consider inmates’ mental health when punishing them for breaking rules. The investigators were particularly concerned about the use of so-called Intensive Management Units—solitary confinement—as a punishment for inmates with diagnosed mental health conditions, pointing out that placing those people in isolation can lead to “destructive or self-harming behaviors, often resulting in infractions and sanctions, causing time in solitary confinement to be repeatedly extended or increasingly harsh.” Continue reading “New Report Finds Serious Shortfalls in Mental Health Care for Washington Prisoners”

Fatal SPD Shooting Highlights Debate About Responses to Armed Mental Health Crises

Seattle Police Officer Raises His Weapon Toward Derek Hayden on February 16, 2021.

Editor’s note: This article contains references to suicide and police violence.

By Paul Kiefer

At around 9:20 PM on February 16, Derek J. Hayden approached a Port of Seattle Police cruiser parked on Seattle’s waterfront. Holding a kitchen knife to his throat, Hayden told the pair of Port Police officers that he wanted to die.

The two Port Police officers called for backup. Within minutes, Seattle Police Department officers began searching for officers who could respond to the scene, specifically asking for any officers carrying a weapon known as a “40-millimeter” launcher that fires a large, foam-tipped projectile. Meanwhile, the Port Police officers followed Hayden on foot as he walked north and began cutting himself.

Though the Port Police officers carried their own 40-millimeter launcher—the department equips every squad car with the weapon—the officers later told SPD that their attempt to use the weapon to disarm Hayden “failed,” though neither the officers nor spokespeople for the Port Police provided additional details about the failure.

Derek Hayden’s death followed a familiar pattern: Police respond to a call about a person carrying a weapon during a mental health crisis, and after a short confrontation, the officers shoot and kill the person in crisis.

By about 9:23, a pair of SPD patrol officers arrived on the waterfront, stopping their car less than a half-block in front of Hayden. As the pair stepped out of their car, footage from one of the officers’ body-worn video cameras shows a group of officers who were already at the scene—including the Port Police officers, though the identities of the officers alongside them are unclear—following Hayden at a distance. Aside from the officers and Hayden, the sidewalk was empty—the nearest bystanders were inside a restaurant down the block.

Neither of the SPD officers were carrying a 40-millimeter launcher, though one carried an assault rifle—a weapon SPD officers often carry when responding to calls about an armed person in crisis. One of the SPD officers stood on the opposite side of the car, ordering Hayden to drop the knife. The officer with the assault rifle stepped out of the car on the side facing Hayden.

“You need to stop,” yelled the officer with the assault rifle. Hayden raised his arms and walked towards the officer, responding, “just do it!” The officer walked backwards, shouting at Hayden to drop to the ground. “Do it,” Hayden repeated. “Please kill me.” As Hayden came closer, the officer backed up slightly, then fired at least three rounds. Hayden collapsed in the street as other officers rushed towards him. He died at the scene.

Derek Hayden’s death followed a familiar pattern: Police respond to a call about a person carrying a weapon during a mental health crisis, and after a short confrontation, the officers shoot and kill the person in crisis. SPD officers shot and killed Terry Caver, a 57-year-old man suffering an apparent schizophrenic episode while carrying a knife in Lower Queen Anne on May 19, 2020.

Two months later, police in Bothell shot and killed 25-year-old Juan Rene Hummel during another apparent mental health crisis; like Caver and Hayden, Hummel was carrying a knife. At least one-third of all people killed by police in Washington since 2015 were experiencing some kind of mental health crisis at the time of their death.

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SPD, like police departments around the state, is gradually beginning to delegate some mental health crisis responses to mental health professionals.  But mental health crisis calls involving a person carrying a weapon are still a sticking point in the debate about which duties should be shifted police officers to mental health specialists. When SPD officers shot and killed Derek Hayden on February 16, mental health care advocates, police oversight leadership and state legislators were already leading efforts to shape a new approach to armed mental health crisis response.

Andrew Myerberg, the director of Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability—the civilian-led agency within SPD that conducts investigations into allegations of police misconduct—arrived on the waterfront later that night. Though the details of Hayden’s death were still hazy, Myerberg saw enough reasons for concern to launch an investigation into the shooting.

“The core of the investigation,” Myerberg said, “is whether the officers followed the department’s de-escalation policies.” Those policies emphasize that, when “safe and feasible,” officers should make an effort to buy time in tense situations by placing space and barriers between themselves and a person in crisis, and that officers should enter potentially volatile situations with some de-escalation plan in mind.

Myerberg noted that the tactics used by the other group of officers at the scene—following Hayden at a distance, for instance—may provide a vital point of comparison in the OPA’s investigation. “We’ll be asking whether the officers who stepped out of the car checked with the officers who were already on the scene about possible plans,” he said. However, Myerberg added that the Port Police officers’ unsuccessful attempts to disarm Hayden wouldn’t absolve the SPD officers from their responsibility to de-escalate when feasible. “Every officer involved has an obligation to try to de-escalate,” he said. Continue reading “Fatal SPD Shooting Highlights Debate About Responses to Armed Mental Health Crises”