Tag: Communications and Community Safety Center

Sawant Recall Down to the Wire, No Charges for Cop Who Rolled Bike Over Protester, Long Waits for Non-Emergency Calls

1. The results of a second day of vote-counting in the Kshama Sawant’s recall election substantially closed the gap between pro- and anti-recall votes, leaving Sawant within 250 votes of victory. On election night, with an unusually high number of ballots counted, Sawant was behind by 6.4 percentage points. Ordinarily, that would be an easy margin to make up, since later ballots tend to strongly favor left-leaning politicians and issues, but in this instance, the election-night vote represented far more ballots than usual, meaning that some of the “late” ballots that would typically be counted in the days after an election were included in the Tuesday tally.

On Wednesday, as King County Elections counted more last-minute ballots from drop boxes, the tide turned strongly in Sawant’s favor. About 62 percent of more than 7,100 votes counted Wednesday favored Sawant. Despite this trend, the election remained too close to predict, for a couple of reasons. First, King County Elections said it expects to count just 1,200 more ballots, total. Assuming that estimate is correct, Sawant will need to win around 60 percent of those ballots to narrowly prevail. That’s lower than 62 percent, but there is one potential reason for caution: Many of the ballots that will be reported Wednesday are ballots that were mailed in before election night, which could end up favoring Sawant by a smaller margin than the ones reported Wednesday.

The second reason for caution is that, according to the elections office, the signatures on 656 ballots have been challenged, which can happen when a signature does not match the one the elections office has on file or if a voter fails to sign the envelope when they submit their ballot. The next “drop” of votes arrives at 4pm today.

2. Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz ordered an officer to serve a seven-day unpaid suspension for rolling his bike over a prone protester’s head during a protest on Capitol Hill in September 2020. The suspension came in response to an Office of Police Accountability (OPA) investigation that found the officer used unreasonable force and violated SPD’s professionalism policies.

The protester, Camilo Massagli, was wearing a hard hat and lying in the street to create a barrier between a line of police officers with bicycles and a group of Black Lives Matter demonstrators. A widely circulated video of the incident shows the officer, Eric Walker, rolling his bicycle over Massagli’s head without attempting to lift his wheel. Massagli was not injured, and officers later arrested him for failure to disperse and obstruction.

In interview with the OPA, Walter insisted that he did not intend to run over Massagli’s head. “Such a belief, even if convincingly articulated and strongly held,” the OPA investigators wrote in their findings, “cannot serve to overcome the clear video evidence in this case.” Ultimately, investigators ruled that Walter had no justification for rolling his bicycle over Massagli, and that he did so intentionally.

OPA Director Andrew Myerberg and Walter’s superiors recommended the seven-day suspension, both because of Walter’s misconduct and the damage the incident did to SPD’s public image. The Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, which represents Walter, is appealing his suspension. Walter also may be able to break his suspension into smaller portions to serve over multiple weeks.

The incident spurred a criminal investigation by the King County Sheriff’s Office, which didn’t find probable cause to charge Walter with assault; the Seattle City Attorney’s Office also did not bring charges against Walter. The sheriff’s detective assigned to the case reasoned that Massagli—a well-known figure during last summer’s protests—might have lain down in the street in hopes of provoking police officers to use force, and that the incident was not a clear-cut case of excessive force because “rolling a bicycle tire over someone would not necessarily be expected to cause someone pain.”

Massagli also chose not to pursue charges, telling the sheriff’s office that he does “not recognize the legitimacy of any U.S. court or police department” and doesn’t believe in using the criminal legal system as punishment.

The OPA also recommended that SPD supervisors reprimand another officer for hitting a protester with his bike during protests on Capitol Hill last fall. 

3. Seattle’s Community Safety and Communications Center, which houses the city’s 911 dispatch center, is struggling to answer calls to its non-emergency line, prompting more than a quarter of callers to hang up after long waits. Non-emergency calls range from noise complaints to reports of suspicious activity. The call center, which moved from the Seattle Police Department to the CSCC in June, has struggled to manage call volumes while short-staffed; in November, the center had 30 vacancies on its roughly 130-member staff, including 10 positions left vacant by dispatchers who lost their jobs in October when the city began firing employees who refused to get vaccinated.

In the final week of November alone, nearly 30 percent of callers to the non-emergency line didn’t reach a human being, waiting an average of five minutes before hanging up. Callers transferred from 911 operators to the non-emergency line were even more likely to give up before reaching a person: 35 percent of transferred callers hung up, waiting an average of 7.5 minutes.

The CSCC has reported that Seattle’s temporary hiring incentive program, which offers $10,000 bonuses to new police officers and 911 dispatchers—and $25,000 to officers and dispatchers who transfer from other agencies—doubled the number of applications they received to fill vacant positions. For now, callers to the non-emergency line will hear a pre-recorded message suggesting alternative ways to seek help during the center’s peak hours.

—Erica C. Barnett, Paul Kiefer

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”

Public Safety Agencies Announce Plan for New 911 Triage Team

Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz (Photo: Paul Kiefer, PubliCola News)

By Paul Kiefer

By next summer, Seattle’s emergency call dispatchers may have a new crisis response team at their disposal. The new unit, called Triage One, would be housed within the Seattle Fire Department’s Mobile Integrated Health program and tasked with responding to some crisis calls that don’t clearly involve a medical emergency or criminal activity.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan debuted the proposal at a press conference on Friday morning alongside Councilmember Lisa Herbold and the heads of the Seattle Police and Fire Departments, and the newly created Communications and Community Safety Center (CSCC).

The goal of the Triage One team, said Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz, is to reduce the city’s reliance on police officers as the default crisis responders. Diaz pointed to “person down” calls—calls about people either asleep or unconscious in public—as an example; at the moment, SPD treats those calls as high-priority, which involves dispatching at least two officers to respond as quickly as possible.

Durkan said the team would ideally be able to respond to roughly 1,000 crisis calls per year, particularly in the greater downtown area during business hours.

“But a majority of ‘person down’ calls are because someone’s experiencing addiction or a health crisis, and when SPD responds, officers still need to call another agency [for a more appropriate response],” Diaz said. Instead, the city could rely on an unarmed team to respond to those non-criminal emergencies and call for medical assistance, police backup, caseworkers, or other responders after taking stock of the situation.

Triage One would rely heavily on Seattle’s 911 dispatch center, which is now part of the CSCC. According to CSCC Director Chris Lombard, the unit would function as an extension of the dispatch center itself. “911 has always been in a pinch to, in a minute to 90 seconds, decide what’s happening and how to deploy resources to help,” he said. “We see the Triage One system as a way to extend the time available to figure out how to get someone [in crisis] the services they need.” Meanwhile, the CSCC is developing a standardized list of questions for dispatchers to ask 911 callers, ostensibly to streamline emergency calls.

At the moment, the program is still only theoretical; the details of the Triage One team, including its size, makeup, and cost, won’t be resolved until the project receives approval and funding from the city council, Durkan said. She added that the team would ideally be able to respond to roughly 1,000 crisis calls per year, particularly in the greater downtown area during business hours. Continue reading “Public Safety Agencies Announce Plan for New 911 Triage Team”