Seattle lawmaker proposes diverting police funds to EMS crisis team

The proposal would create a program to dispatch medics and crisis workers to mental health calls


Scott Greenstone
The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis is introducing legislation to divert police funding into creating a new mental health and substance addiction first-responder program, where unarmed medics and crisis workers would respond to reports of people in mental health crisis.

In the middle of continuing protests in Seattle and around the country where protesters have called for defunding police, Lewis sees this new response replacing police in these situations and lowering police caseloads.

Police officers behind a barricade watch as protesters fill the street in front of Seattle City Hall on Wednesday, June 3, 2020, in Seattle. Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis has introduced legislation that would divert police funds to a program that would dispatch medics and crisis workers to mental health calls. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Police officers behind a barricade watch as protesters fill the street in front of Seattle City Hall on Wednesday, June 3, 2020, in Seattle. Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis has introduced legislation that would divert police funds to a program that would dispatch medics and crisis workers to mental health calls. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

“We need a new leg of the stool,” Lewis said. “When there’s a building on fire, we don’t send the police, we send the fire department… when someone has a stroke, we send an ambulance.”

Lewis wants the council to consider cutting SPD’s funding to pay for such a program this summer.

In his announcement, Lewis cited a program from Eugene, Oregon, called Crisis Assistance Helping Out On the Streets, or CAHOOTS, which is privately run by a local nonprofit and has taken on almost a fifth of 911 calls to law enforcement, only a tiny fraction of which require them to then call the police, according to the organization.

Following George Floyd’s death in Minnesota, CAHOOTS has been covered extensively by national media, and programs like it have been proposed or stood up in Portland, OregonOakland, California, and Denver, Colorado. 

King County already has a similar program, called the Mobile Crisis Team and run by shelter and housing provider Downtown Emergency Services Center (DESC), but it’s not hardwired into the 911 system — most of the referrals come from police who show up and then call the team, according to Dan Malone, executive director of DESC.

That team has only 38 members and already responds to around a dozen calls a day, Malone said.

“It’s busy as it is in the current configuration, so if you create a more direct way for them to be dispatched to crisis events, you’re probably going to need to increase the size,” Malone said.

Other referrals come from fire, EMS or the county’s 24-hour crisis line, 866-4CRISIS, which anyone can call.

Last year, Mayor Jenny Durkan also piloted a similar program out of the Fire Department, a team of social workers and firefighters called Health One. This team is part of 911 response, but responds to nonemergencies: As of February, the team had helped 275 people but the number of calls they responded to was not immediately available; another team was added this summer.

Some critics in Oregon have pointed out that simply taking the responsibility away from police is not enough, that nonprofits can still discriminate against Black and Indigenous people, and that a response should be designed and developed with input from the community. Lane County, which CAHOOTS services, is almost 90 percent white according to the census.

Council President Lorena Gonzalez said in a council briefing that the city shouldn’t just look at the CAHOOTS model, but should also survey other cities and engage the community in what the response should look like.

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

Lewis’ legislation is still in early stages and he said he’s very open to input on how the new program should look. But he also said that “every day we delay puts our neighbors at risk.”

“There are friends in mind who I have lost to suicide who could still be here today if there had been a service like this,” Lewis said.

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©2020 The Seattle Times

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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