City councilmember proposes cutting SPD budget and creating new sector of first responders for 911 calls

SEATTLE — Protesters have been calling for the City of Seattle to defund police and a city council member is suggesting how.

Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis is proposing to move some funding away from SPD, and use that money to create another type of first responder.

“We are really talking about changing the whole system of public safety in Seattle,” Lewis said in a Zoom interview with KIRO 7.

Lewis is proposing a new program that would send in unarmed behavioral health professionals to certain 911 calls instead of Seattle police, and brought up his intent to introduce that legislation during a City Council briefing Monday.

“To respond to these historic ills – we can’t have any delay in doing it since every day we wait, it puts more of our neighbors at risk,” Lewis said during the briefing.

Lewis’ proposal would be based off a program Eugene, OR implemented thirty years ago, called CAHOOTS -- or “Crisis assistance helping out on the streets.”

It's run by a third-party nonprofit there called White Bird Clinic. Lewis said the nonprofit responds to about 20% of all 911 calls in an area, or 24,000 calls annually. He said the response area is similar in size to the City of Tacoma.

“I really think we should be making the investment, building up and scaling out a response like this. It would make sense to fund it by defunding SPD and cutting SPD’s budget,” Lewis said, adding that it would lighten the load of Seattle police calls.

The City Council has been reviewing SPD’s $409 million budget since June and looking for ways to change policing while cutting funding.

Defunding Seattle police has been at the top of protesters’ demands for months in the fight for racial equity and police accountability.

“Why are we still sending police to someone who is experiencing a mental health or substance abuse related crisis?” Lewis said.

He said studies show someone with a mental health condition is 16 times more likely to be shot by police, and the numbers are even higher for people of color in crisis.

“It’s urgent we put in a new type of first responder,” Lewis said.

City Council president Lorena González said during the briefing she wants to make sure other models of changing how policing works stay on the table.

“I hope in the conversation moving forward we can not get fixated on just one particular model as the answer, but really have a thoughtful conversation about what model might be best for the City of Seattle,” González said.

Seattle already has a program called "Health One" -- where instead of an armed officer, the 911 call center dispatches a social worker, fire fighter, and mental health professional.

Expanding that is also being considered.

Lewis says he's open to how exactly the changes are implemented - as long as response to crisis calls comes from a branch separate from Seattle police, and that decisions are made with the community

“It’s a watershed moment,” Lewis said. “We are creating a whole new system- in essence it’s almost like a 100% defunding because we’re rebuilding rom the ground up,” he said.

City Council is hearing community recommendations Wednesday on a "Roadmap to defunding Seattle police and community investments."

There is a public hearing where Council will be hearing your comments Wednesday afternoon.