By Paul Kiefer
Last year’s protests may not have resulted in the dismantling of the Seattle Police Department, but as of June 1, they have produced one small shift: Seattle’s 911 dispatch is no longer housed within SPD. Instead, the unit is now a part of the Community Safety and Communications Center (CSCC), a new, independent city department that will, in theory, eventually house other civilian crisis response and public safety programs.
The move isn’t likely to have an immediate impact on who responds to emergency calls; for now, elected officials and advocates for downsizing the police hope that it will leave the door open for more significant changes.
The Seattle City Council proposed moving the dispatch center as part of its plan to shift functions and funds away from SPD last year and “develop a crisis response that doesn’t rely on an armed police response,” as council public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold said in a statement last month. “911 dispatch has been called the gatekeeper for the whole criminal justice,” she said. Citing a 2015 statistic linking more than half of that year’s police killings of unarmed people nationwide by police to 911 calls, Herbold argued that when dispatchers are primed to refer calls to police, the public is at greater risk.
The move to the CSCC is unlikely to prompt any immediate changes in how dispatchers handle 911 calls. “Right now, our move out of SPD is mostly a name change,” said Jacob Adams, the president of the Seattle Police Dispatchers’ Guild. His unit transferred to the CSCC almost intact; the only sworn officers in the unit were a lieutenant and a captain, and they did not move to the CSCC.
More importantly, Adams said, the emergency response options available to dispatchers haven’t changed. “Before the move, we could refer people to the police or animal control; we could transfer them to [the Seattle Fire Department], and we did a lot of referrals to service providers, too,” he said. “And right now, it seems like that will stay the same. We’re always going to be tied at the hip with police and fire.”
But despite their close relationship with the police department, Adams said that his union is eager for a more finely tuned approach to emergency response. “Among other things, it would be really great to have a system in place for us to reach the counselors of people with mental health challenges,” he said. “They could have a plan in place for what to do when their patient needs help, and they could become another entity we could dispatch. We would get to know them, learn their procedures and what they need from us.” Continue reading “Moving 911 From the Police Department Is Just a Start”