SEATTLE — Up to half the calls Seattle police receive can be responded to without armed, sworn officers, according to new findings from a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that spent the last few months analyzing Seattle’s 911 calls. But police, while generally supportive of the findings, say they have questions about how realistic that number is.
The report, published Monday, is a result of a portion of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s plan to reimagine policing in Seattle, which she launched last September with an executive order that commissioned an analysis of the city’s 911 calls. This week, the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform — which specializes in reducing incarceration and gun violence throughout the country — released its analysis of three years of dispatch data. The institute found, at some point in the future, an “alternative, non-sworn response” could be appropriate for up to 49% of Seattle Police Department calls, or about 685,000 dispatch responses between 2017 and 2019.
The institute also found about 80% of SPD calls are noncriminal responses — though it noted that some calls not coded as a criminal incident might still involve some criminal behavior. As for shorter-term changes, the report also noted about 12% of calls “can and should be explored for alternative responses” in the near future.
Chris Fisher, SPD’s executive director of strategic initiatives, said his team has examined the institute’s findings and “totally appreciates and supports the approach it took” — particularly its recommendation of a four-tier response model where unarmed community members and SPD officers work both together and separately on responses, depending on the call.
The first tier includes calls that can most likely be handled by an unarmed community responder, like littering or noise complaints. The second and third tiers include calls that can be handled by both community responders and police dispatchers, with one group leading the response over the other, depending on the case. The fourth includes calls where police are the primary responders, like shots fired or assault.
While SPD generally agrees with the tiered model, Fisher said, questions remain over how to ensure safety for community responders and victims in each call type.
“Generally the tiered model is a great approach and some of their general bucketing makes a lot of logical sense,” he said. “It just needs another layer of analysis to make sure it’s operational.”
For example, Fisher said, officers are sometimes directed to areas where there have been recent increases in shootings or other violent crime. Those calls are often listed as “proactive/administrative” codes, rather than violent crime ones, but officers’ visible presence is part of a deployment strategy “grounded in research,” SPD said in the report. It wouldn’t make sense to have non-law-enforcement officers doing that work, SPD said.
Police also didn’t agree with the logic that unarmed individuals could respond to alarm calls, including “non-passive” bank and panic alarms.
“It is true that many passive ‘burglar’ alarms are false alarms … but these actively activated alarms where a hold-up could be occurring, seem to call for the dispatch of an officer, not an unarmed person to confirm if it is real or not,” SPD said in the report.
There are also some legal and labor concerns with the institute’s suggestions, Fisher said. Calls that could raise legal issues, he said, include those involving who can take possession of lost property, how to respond to a death without compromising a potential homicide scene, or how to enforce maritime rules and safety.
Still, some change can happen in the shorter term, Fisher said.
The roughly 12% of calls that can be explored for alternative responses in the shorter term — which include “person down” calls and some low-priority welfare checks — prompted Durkan and other city officials to last week announce plans for a special response team that would focus on calls associated with neither criminal nor medical emergencies.
Officials are still working on the details for that initiative, tentatively being called “Triage One,” and nothing will launch until next year at the earliest, Durkan said during a news conference last week.
The triage team pilot would be housed within the city’s Mobile Integrated Health program and be staffed by city employees who are not sworn police officers, the report says. The responders would be trained in outreach, behavioral health, de-escalation techniques and how to navigate people to social services, Durkan said last week.
They would also be equipped with radios to request a police or medical response if needed. On the back end, the teams would work with a case manager who could follow up on client referrals and service connections.
“These are calls where we know the risk of harm is very low,” the report says. “This reduction does not equate to — and is not reflective of — the percent of service hours SPD currently spends on calls that could ostensibly be offloaded.”
Similar models have already been implemented in cities throughout the country, the report noted, including in Denver, Baltimore, Olympia and Eugene, Oregon.
“Policing in general is shifting in that direction, both from the social justice conversation of how do we decrease unnecessary interactions with police departments and make sure people are getting matched up with the services they need — but also because so many departments are having staffing crises, it’s a necessity,” Fisher said.
Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who chairs the public safety and human services committee, said in a statement sent to The Seattle Times on Wednesday that she’s “much more interested” in the 12% of calls that have been deemed a possibility to address in the shorter term.
“We need to build a more robust alternate response (for those calls) now,” she wrote, saying that the city shouldn’t wait until next year to start on the triage team project.
She’s currently proposing funding in the second quarter supplemental 2021 budget for a new protocol dispatch system, which would be necessary for Triage One to work and to handle a broader array of calls that don’t need police response.
While some officers might look forward to better managing their workload with possible triage models, Fisher added that there is some concern about a future where officers are only responding to criminal or violent calls.
“There’s a risk of losing the nonenforcement, positive interactions [with community members] if they’re only going to the serious stuff,” he said. “We don’t want to completely offload the helping part of policing. That’s why so many of them are here, and I wonder if they would miss those opportunities.”