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.
“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. Continue reading “Seattle Was Supposed to Create Alternatives to Police for 911 Calls. What Happened?”