Seattle City Council, SPD seek answer to 911 alternatives

The Seattle Police Department contracted with the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform (NICJR) to conduct an analysis of the types of calls the department handled from the years 2017-2019.

The analysis coincided with then-mayor Jenny Durkan’s September 2020 executive order, Reimagining Policing and Community Safety in Seattle. The analysis was meant to inform SPD of recommendations for alternative, non-police responses to certain calls.

The analysis found that in reviewing more than 1.2 million calls over the period of 2017-2019, nearly 80% of calls were for non-criminal events, and only 6% were associated with a felony of any kind.

The report recommended that SPD use alternative response options for “70% of calls for services that do not require a law enforcement response or are appropriate for a dual response by law enforcement and a community-based/non-law enforcement service provider.”

The report also recommended that the city assess its “existing landscape of potential alternative responders” in order to determine their capacity to serve in a new response role.

In response to the NICJR report, Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz said in a letter to the council last month that SPD “is required to submit quarterly reports on the department’s efforts to identify a non‐sworn response for 911 call types that the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform (NICJR) categorized as appropriate for a civilian response.”

According to a Seattle City Council Statement of Legislative Intent, the quarterly reports are submitted April 1, July 1, and Oct. 1, and they address the types of calls SPD responds to, the percentage of calls that could be handled without SPD involvement, and other calls that would not require a “sworn response,” such as traffic collision reports.

Diaz continued to push back on the NICJR report, saying that 97% of calls received by the department are resolved differently than they are initially classified. “In reality, it’s not possible to accurately predict the outcome of every call,” he said. “Consequently, until now, 911 call centers have treated all calls as High or Extreme risk and sent an all-hazard officer, i.e., a police officer.”

Diaz says that the department has begun the Risk Managed Project, meant to help determine which calls can be responded to in alternative ways. “This in turn will help decision-makers better understand the nature and scale of these types of calls so that an appropriate alternative response can be identified.”

In a committee meeting on Tuesday, though, city councilmember Andrew Lewis disagreed with the police chief’s idea, citing another American city that is making big changes to its 911 response.

“What I just don’t understand is Denver has been doing this for two years; Denver has responded to 2,700 calls without any incident or problem dispatched through 911, and they have been able to triage those calls in a way that sends an appropriate response during their pilot,” Lewis said. “Did they go through a similar data analysis project like this? Why haven’t I heard from any of the panels over the last two years of a site visit or a discussion with anyone from Denver about how they respond to these calls?”

In response, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell’s Director of Public Safety Andrew Myerberg says that the city is doing research into cities and programs across the county, Denver included.

“We are working very vigilantly with a broad swathe of department heads to develop the understanding, and if possible, pivot-to pilot,” Myerberg said. “I’m not sure Denver and how they’re doing their thing should dictate how Seattle does it – it’s going to be relevant information, but I’m not sure it’s dispositive about how we roll out our resources.”