By Erica C. Barnett
Editor’s note: This story has been edited to reflect the fact that the Seattle Police Department, not the Seattle Fire Department, confirmed that the police officer was responding to a call about an overdose.
On Monday, a police officer responding to an overdose call in South Lake Union in struck and killed a 23-year-old student at Northeastern University, Jaahnavi Kandula, who was crossing Dexter Avenue on Thomas Street in a marked intersection, according to police.
According to the Seattle Fire Department, the department was responding to a call for aid 6th Ave. N, a few blocks away; the Seattle Police Department confirmed that the call was “a priority one call for an overdose.” An SFD spokeswoman told PubliCola the man, who was in his late 20s, “was evaluated and did not want to be transported to the hospital.”
The police department has released few details about the collision and was slow to get information out to the public Monday night. SPD did not confirm that Kandula had died until Tuesday afternoon, nearly 18 hours after the crash, and initially did not disclose that the collision involved a police officer, tweeting only that they were “investigating [a] collision.” The department’s official post still says the officer was responding to an unspecified “priority 1” call—the most urgent call type, which can include everything from a person unconscious at a bus stop to an active shooter—rather than an overdose.
SPD said it could not respond to questions about the collision, the officer who was driving the SUV, or the speed with which they released information to the press and public. “This is still an active investigation,” public affairs Sergeant John O’Neil told PublICola. “The information we can provide, such as times, speed, who did what, who knew what etc. is extremely limited while the investigation is going on. … We do not know at this time if there will be a criminal investigation.”
SPD did not confirm that Kandula had died until Tuesday afternoon, nearly 18 hours after the crash, and initially did not disclose that the collision involved a police officer, tweeting only that they were “investigating [a] collision.”
What we do know is that that, as of at least last year, sending cops out on overdose calls is a routine practice.
“The SPD/CSCC Policy is to dispatch police along with SFD to a specific set of calls including persons trapped in elevators, hazmat situations, active shooters, scenes of violence, down persons, suicides, overdoses, domestic disputes and certain similar types of calls,” an spokesman for the Community Safety and Communications Center (CSCC), which answers 911 calls, said. “In every case the call is screened with SFD first so a trained fire dispatcher can make a determination whether SFD will respond. If SFD will respond, the call is always dispatched as priority 1 for SPD.”
In other words, if you call 911 about a possible overdose, any response from the city will include police, even if the person only needs medical attention.
It’s unclear when this policy became routine, but it may date to late last year. Last September, Council public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold mentioned at a council briefing that she was talking to the fire department about implementing an “automatic joint response, with SPD escorting SPD,” for all overdose calls after firefighters raised concerns about people being violent and belligerent when medics reversed their overdoses with Narcan.
People who “receive Narcan or who are coming out of a seizure for another reason, [might] be unaware of their surroundings and have an initial violent reaction,” putting first responders at risk, Herbold said. This is a common complaint among law enforcement officials, although it’s unclear how often overdose victims actually attack first responders.
The collision also raises questions about the safety of the intersection where it occurred.
For years, the city had been working on a major safety upgrade in the rapidly developing Dexter corridor, with a new protected crosswalk at Dexter and Thomas as its centerpiece. The new crosswalk would have prevented vehicles from using Thomas Street to cross Dexter while slowing perpendicular traffic on Dexter itself.
Last year, Mayor Bruce Harrell canceled the remaining elements of the safety project, citing the need to cut costs amid budget challenges. “This project is a green street/public realm project that connects South Lake Union with Seattle Center. The reduction would pause the remaining project scope indefinitely,” Harrell’s 2023 budget says. The cuts amounted to $2.2 million of the $5.5 million project, according to Harrell spokesman Jamie Housen, who pointed out that the city council did not restore funding for the project in their version of the budget.
“The Traffic Collision Investigation Squad is examining this event,.and the information detailed in that investigation will determine next steps and help identify any changes we can make—both in our infrastructure and operationally—to ensure this kind of terrible event does not happen again.” —Mayor Bruce Harrell
“Following approval of the budget, the Mayor’s Office has directed City departments to reevaluate how the project should best move forward, what improvements can be made with the current budget, and what further steps should be taken to improve safety along the corridor should additional resources become available,” Housen said.
Although the new pedestrian protections would not have been in place in time to prevent the collision Monday night, the elimination of funding for an important pedestrian and cyclist project that was already underway speaks to an ongoing lack of progress toward Vision Zero, a goal the city has adopted of ending traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2030. Harrell’s SDOT director, Gregory Spotts, has promised a “top to bottom review” of the city’s Vision Zero strategy.
“Our public safety strategies must include ensuring our streets and sidewalks are safe for all users,” Harrell said in a statement sent in response to PubliCola’s questions. “We will continue to look to the data to determine where safety investments can and should be made, including regularly reassessing ongoing and future projects like the one at Thomas Street.”
“The Traffic Collision Investigation Squad is examining this event,” Harrell continued, “and the information detailed in that investigation will determine next steps and help identify any changes we can make—both in our infrastructure and operationally—to ensure this kind of terrible event does not happen again.”
According to the Seattle Department of Transportation, no one has been hit or seriously injured at the intersection of Dexter and Thomas since at least 2018.