Podcast | Seattle police, social workers and mental health crisis calls
The debate over public safety is filled with disagreements, but almost everyone agrees on one thing: We need another option for people in crisis.
The debate over policing and public safety is filled with disagreements, but almost everyone agrees on one thing: We need another option for people in crisis.
In this episode of This Changes Everything’s focus on defunding the police, reporter David Kroman rides along with Sandlin Grayson, a member of the Seattle Police Department Crisis Response Team, to observe how the police approach crisis calls.
Kroman then speaks to the team at the Downtown Emergency Service Center, one of Seattle’s largest nonprofits serving the homeless. Although they have some appreciation for cops like Grayson, they argue that there must be a better way to help people in crisis.
In this six-part podcast, available now in its entirety, host Sara Bernard and Kroman take a close look at the challenges of policing today and explore whether it’s even possible to downsize the police force and create a new public safety regime that is more equitable and safe.
Transcripts for This Changes Everything are the product of a third-party service. The audio stands as the official record for the reporting in this series.
Anonymous speaker: [00:00:00] This episode of This Changes Everything is presented by the Crosscut Festival, May 3rd through the 8th, online and in Seattle.
Dispatch: [00:00:15] Priority one overdose. The on-scene nurse is reporting that she's administered Narcan to a person who's not responding.
Sara Bernard: [00:00:45] This is officer Sandlin Grayson...
Sandlin Grayson: [00:00:47] I'm 43 years old. I've only been with the Seattle Police Department for seven years,
Sara Bernard: [00:00:54] ...and it's a pretty typical morning for him.
Dispatch: [00:00:56] Reporting a male who's yelling at people ...
Sandlin Grayson: [00:01:01] So, we have a suicide threat call. We'll take the other overdose.
Sara Bernard: [00:01:10] Grayson's part of the Seattle Police Department's Crisis Response Team, a small handful of specially trained police officers who show up day after day, dozens of times per day, to street-level emergencies, most often related to mental health and substance use crises, also known as crisis calls.
As Crosscut reporter David Kroman explains, police are the ones who show up, but these incidents aren't usually criminal.
David Kroman: [00:01:34] crisis call is generally when, there's not necessarily a crime occurring, but just somebody is in a really bad way. So that might be an overdose, substance use overdose, or a mental health crisis.
And I'd say those are probably the two most common. Maybe somebody just might be kind of acting frantically or stepping out into the street and, you know, I just think the way that things are set up right now, most people, you know, when they perceive some situation that looks to be unstable, they're not really sure who else to turn to except for 911.
Sara Bernard: [00:02:11] And there really isn't anywhere else to turn most of the time. There are very few certified crisis responders out there, not to mention ones who can get there right away, except police. But these days, when responding to those 911 calls, SPD crisis response officers like Grayson don't travel alone.
They're paired up with a mental health professional.
David Kroman: [00:02:30] Part of the sort of ongoing settlement agreement that the city and the federal government struck in order to reform the police department was specifically focused on improving interactions between officers and people in mental health crisis.
And so that meant a lot more reporting, you had the creation of this crisis intervention team and then you also had the introduction of a mental health professional who would ride along with officers. That started small and is still quite small. It was really just one mental health professional for many years. Only recently was that expanded out to five.
But that's, that's unique, at least locally, that you have these mental health professionals who are embedded with the officers and are actually helping them respond
Mariah Andrignis: [00:03:15] A single officer working alone in a car can not necessarily spend the time to dial a whole bunch of phone numbers and ask a bunch of questions to a person while hey're trying to get to a scene quickly and safely. right.
Sara Bernard: [00:03:28] That's Mariah Andrignis. Technically she's an employee of Downtown Emergency Service Center, or DESC, an organization that primarily serves people experiencing homelessness.
Mariah Andrignis: [00:03:38] Whereas we, as their partner, kind of know where we're going with this can call, get that information and be ready to use it when we get to where we're going.
Sara Bernard: [00:03:46] And for her, the partnership works.
Mariah Andrignis: [00:03:48] <inaudible> would be like a different situation. It'd be like, I see this, you see this, how do we help this person together.
David Kroman: [00:03:56] Right.
Sara Bernard: [00:03:56] And so, a few months ago, just to learn more about how it all works, David tagged along with Grayson and Andrignis for a good chunk of one of their shifts.
David Kroman: [00:04:03] This was around 10 in the morning, and we sat in the parking lot for a while and we talked and chatted for a little while. And then, you know, it was really one call after the next, from there on out for the next, I was with them, I think, for maybe four or five hours. And it really didn't stop.
I think in that time we saw three overdoses and a couple suicide threats and ...
Sandlin Grayson: [00:04:29] ... I'll send, dispatch a message, let them know that we're available to take off ...
David Kroman: [00:04:34] ... a few people sort of acting erratically on the streets. And yeah, what struck me was that he would finish one incident that was for most people, something that they would probably remember for many years to come ... I mean, you're watching people almost die or, um, threaten suicide or go through these emotional health crises. And then, you know, he'd click on the next thing and off we'd go.
Sara Bernard: [00:04:58] There are about five full-time crisis responders at SPD who spend all day, every day going to these kinds of incidents. And lately almost all the time, they've got a mental health professional at their side, but these calls are really so common that David says, all officers are tasked with this kind of work, at least sometimes.
David Kroman: [00:05:14] Yeah. So the department in 2019 cataloged about 16,000 crisis calls. So this is something that's happening many times a day. They take around 400-some-thousand calls a year, so as a total proportion it might not be a significant amount, but it is enough of an amount that this is something that certain officers are seeing all day every day. And I would say all officers, especially officers who work in kind of the downtown core, and I would say increasingly in North Seattle, will experience at some point.
Especially officers who work in say Pioneer Square or something. I think a lot of their job is responding to people in crisis.
So while it isn't a majority of calls, it is enough that it is a near daily occurrence for most officers that they will encounter some sort of crisis situation in this regard,
Sara Bernard: [00:06:10] It might come as a shock, just how many crises like these, there are on a daily basis in a mid-sized city like Seattle, but it's happening. And right now, almost everywhere in Seattle and across the country crisis response systems are run by police department. Most of the time, it works, until it doesn't.
I'm Sara Bernard, and this is This Changes Everything, a podcast from Crosscut about the new normal. Truth is, despite what we might think cops do, most police forces generally spend a pretty small percentage of their time responding to violent crime. According to SPD data, for example, the categories that get the most 911 calls are disturbances, like noise or fights and traffic incidents, low-level crimes or no crime at all. But because these things are related to public safety, police officers are the ones responding.
It just happens that right now, in the middle of this new fierce debate over really the definition policing, one particular kind of 911 call is being called into question again again.
David tagged along with Sandlin Grayson and Mariah Andrignis to get a sense of how things work now when it comes to crisis intervention at SPD. And he talked to Daniel Malone, executive director of Downtown Emergency Service Center, an organization that sees a lot of crises like these, and Emily Katz, a former DESC nurse.
While the defund debate rages on, crisis calls are one area where lots of people on all sides of the issue can agree. Well, for the most part. Stay with us.
So officer Grayson, it turns out, is kind of unique. That's how David found him, actually.
David Kroman: [00:09:07] You know, every year the Seattle Police Department publishes data on its website on how often it's responding to crisis incidents. And, you know, interesting to me was who is responding to those crisis incidents, cause I was curious.
I wanted to find out which officer was seeing the most of these calls and, um, was kind of curious to see if, frankly, if anything popped up on the record that was concerning. And so what I found was that there was this one officer, Sandlin Grayson, who not only had responded to more of these crisis calls than any other officer had responded to -- something like triple the number of any other officer over the last fight year ...
Sandlin Grayson: [00:09:41] I like this job more at year seven than I did at year one. It's very satisfying.
David Kroman: [00:09:48] ... he has been doing this now for a few years, which I think is rare. It's a really hard job and it's really emotionally taxing, and I think a lot of officers maybe want to cycle out of that sort of work, but Grayson, he's this officer who kind of has this resume, that feels perfectly crafted for somebody to be responding to crisis incidents.
Sandlin Grayson: [00:10:09] Prior to law enforcement, I worked in healthcare, not as a clinician, but as an administrator.
David Kroman: [00:10:19] What kind of like, um, like hospital administration, that sort of thing?
Sandlin Grayson: [00:10:23] Primarily outpatient and also for our providers that were in community mental health centers. So I worked in mental health care.
David Kroman: [00:10:32] His father was a psychiatrist and had his own clinic.
Sandlin Grayson: [00:10:35] Yeah. When I was, didn't have the right perspective, you know, because I was a teenager, my father would take me to the community mental health cente.
David Kroman: [00:10:47] His father would make Grayson sit in the lobby of his clinic and talk to all of the patients that were sitting there, including a lot of people who are struggling with schizophrenia.
Sandlin Grayson: [00:10:55] So I would go around and say, "Hi, my name's Sandlin. I'm Dr. Grayson's son." And we would talk. So I had a happy middle class upbringing and, yeah, I was speaking to people that had very profound mental illness where, you know, some of the symptoms of the disease are just agonizing, but they were fighters and survivors and, you know, frequently making that choice between continuing their life or not.
Many schizophrenics you speak with would say that, you know, they just find it so isolating. They will not leave their house or places of comfort out of fear that they may begin to have hallucinations and how the public views them. I mean, they live in such isolation and often very limited social circles.
So, I mean, they have my utmost respect.
David Kroman: [00:12:01] And so, this is this thing that he has been around for a really long time, and so, you know, officers have a lot of different reasons for becoming police officers, but I think Grayson is the rare example of somebody who got into the work specifically to respond to these kinds of crisis calls.
Sandlin Grayson: [00:12:17] Yeah, I absolutely love responding to support them and keep them safe, because when they call 911 and the police department;s coming, you know, they, they know we're there to care for them. And keep them
Sara Bernard: [00:12:40] well.
So, before he wrote around with officer Grayson, David talked with a few of his colleagues in the police department, just to get a sense of who he was.
David Kroman: [00:12:51] And the first reaction I got from somebody in the department was they described him as like a Boy Scout was his reputation. And, you know, when I met him, he's this bald guy, got kind of intense eyes and just over the top polite. You know, in some ways kind of, if you imagine the cross between somebody who you would greet you at a mental health clinic and a police officer. If you take your two stereotypes of those two things and kind of cross-pollinate them, that was exactly what Grayson was.
So, you know, my impression of him was a pretty straight-laced guy, and when you look at his record, you know, nothing pops up complaints-wise against him.
You know, as somebody who responds to crisis events, he is often going back to the same places multiple times. I think of the Downtown Emergency Service Center in near Pioneer Square or Compass Housing or the Union Gospel Mission. These are fairly typical places for him to respond to. And so people that work there also know about Grayson and they all sort of use the same adjectives to describe him, which is that he is a very nice, pleasant man.
Emily Katz: [00:14:41] I think of Grayson as somebody who, who I do think has really good intentions, and I think he's coming from a good place.
Sara Bernard: [00:14:48] This is Emily Katz. Until very recently she was a nurse manager at DESC. So, a medical professional who works a lot with people in mental and behavioral health crisis.
David Kroman: [00:14:57] What was interesting, though, is, in the same breath they would express certain complaints about the way that he would respond to crisis situations, and ...
Emily Katz: [00:15:06] I think he's got a lot of integrity about being a good police officer.
David Kroman: [00:15:11] You know, I don't think that was so much of a personal complaint about the way that he would respond to crisis situations, so much as it was the sort of standard operating procedure of how officers respond to these crisis situations.
Sara Bernard: [00:15:23] And that's even with mental health professionals at their side.
Emily Katz: [00:15:26] From my perspective, and I know I'm not a cop, so I'll never know really, but from my perspective, the cops that I've worked with that I feel like seem to actually be able to prioritize the individual are the cops that need to let this integrity about being a cop melt away a little bit, and look outside of just viewing these situations to be contained. Like, that needs to go away and they need to be able to actually look at this person as a human.
Daniel Malone: [00:15:55] You know, usually when police show up, they're actually not putting hands on people. They're talking to people.
Sara Bernard: [00:16:00] And this is Daniel Malone, executive director at DESC.
Daniel Malone: [00:16:03] But there is, what they bring is both a different set of actors to the situation, but also the very clear implication that some kind of physical force could be employed to bring a person under control or something like that.
David Kroman: [00:16:23] So that was really interesting to me is here you have this guy Grayson, who has this kind of perfect resume to be somebody dealing with people in crisis, seems to have kind of the best of intentions, very polite, waxes sort of poetically and sympathetically towards people who are struggling with mental illness. And yet, even in a character like that, there were people that we would encounter that I would check in with later, who would have issues with the way that he would respond to these certain situations, which, for me sort of set aside ... you couldn't, it was tough to kind of put personal blame on Grayson for these responses.
What it became is this sort of larger question around, what does it mean to have a police officer responding to these situations at all?
Yeah. So it sounds like what you're saying is like the difference being the sort of stereotypical definition of a good cop does not necessarily intersect with what it takes to be good at dealing with people in crisis.
No. Yeah. I mean, it might occasionally work out to somebody who responds well to like strong authority presence, but for the most part, it does not work out well, not for people that have experienced significant trauma.
Sara Bernard: [00:17:57] We'll be right back.
Anonymous speaker: [00:18:11] This last year has changed the way we talk about race, policing, public health politics, the climate, the arts, and the economy. And in many ways it's changed how we talk to one another. But it hasn't stopped the conversation.
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Okay. Back to the show.
Sara Bernard: [00:19:21] So during his day with Officer Grayson, David remembers one incident in particular.
David Kroman: [00:19:25] You know, I was in the car and we were driving down Third Avenue and there's this man who was standing on the corner. He didn't have a shirt on. He had this big gash over his eye. He had blood down his pants. He was walking pretty frantically. And you know, it was fairly clear that this man was going through a hard time. It was clearly some kind of crisis. And, you know, I think Officer Grayson had been, you know, physically flagged down by somebody who was standing on the street.
And so he pulled over and kind of tried to talk to this man, but the man wasn't really having it. And then at one point the man stepped off the sidewalk and into the street. And, so, at that point Grayson, whose job is to keep the public safety, he's thinking about who is going to be a harm to themselves, who's going to be a harm to other people. So he made this determination at that point that because he had stepped off the sidewalk and into the street that he was going to be a danger to himself.
And so at that point he had decided he was going to take this person into detention. He's going to, it's not an arrest, but he's going to take him against his will to the hospital.
Is that a good option, do you think?
Sandlin Grayson: [00:20:38] Yes. Yeah, because we are sending someone to the hospital believing that without this, within the next hour, within the next few hours, that it's probably more likely that they will die than survive.
David Kroman: [00:21:00] But sort of in the process of him figuring out how he's going to do this, this man walked down the street and then met this nurse.
Sara Bernard: [00:21:08] This nurse was Emily Katz.
Emily Katz: [00:21:10] Then staff came and ran and grabbed me, asked if I could come and check in with him cause he was bleeding. So I brought my like emergency grab bag and checked in with him.
He was, appeared to me like maybe he was intoxicated with stimulants. Really a lot of like erratic movements and just seemed really stimulated, overstimulated, and in crisis and upset. And I got to talking with him and he sounded like he thought maybe there was a mask on his face.
And I realized that the mask that he was talking about was the blood on his face. And I asked if he would let me like help him. Cause when I asked him initially if I could help him with this bleeding, he said, "No, no, no, no." Like, "Why does everybody keep asking me that?" And that made him more upset. But when I was able to just, like, have a calm conversation where I wasn't imposing my agenda on him, and I was just asking him what he's doing and what's up, and he told me that he was upset about this mask, and I realized that that's what the bleeding was. And I sat and I offered if I could help him take the mask off.
He immediately chilled out. He was having a conversation with me
David Kroman: [00:22:19] And, you know, even from my vantage point of being in the police car, I could kind of see that this man who was acting pretty frantically before was starting to calm down, was clearly working with this nurse, was allowing her to treat his wounds, you know. But even as she was talking to him and making progress with him and he was calming down, the decision had already been made by Grayson that he was a danger to himself.
Emily Katz: [00:22:42] But then the police car showed up and then another car showed up, blocking traffic. Cops got out ...
David Kroman: [00:22:51] And so as she was talking to him, he kind of pulled his car around to the other end of the block, got out. At that point, some other officers had showed up and they approached him, you know, I would say fairly aggressively in the way that you would imagine maybe they would approach somebody that they were arresting for a crime.
Emily Katz: [00:23:07] He became escalated. I wasn't able to get like a word in edgewise with them. They were doing the thing where they were, not stonewalling me as much as I've experienced other times, but they were not paying attention to what I was saying, that I was a nurse, that I was trying to help. And they ended up just, like, putting cuffs on him and forcing his face into the ground and detaining him.
David Kroman: [00:23:33] And so, whatever calmness had come about this man completely evaporated, he started yelling and screaming and they pushed him to the ground pretty hard. And they put zip ties around his wrists and strapped him, restrained him to a gurney. And so then I talked to Emily, the nurse who was present at the scene, and when the officers showed up, she was clearly really upset. You could kind of tell, and she stood up pretty aggressively, she didn't acknowledge any of the other police officers and she just walked away. You could see it in her face that she was pretty angry. And I called her later, after the fact, and she confirmed to me that the situation had been really frustrating to her because ...
Emily Katz: [00:24:15] I thought like, this is crazy. This didn't need to turn out this way, or maybe if he did need to get detained later on, that could have happened in a less traumatic way.
David Kroman: [00:24:24] You know, in the world of crisis response, if you can get somebody to engage with you and calm down in a minute, which is really what she had done, I mean, that's a pretty impressive thing that suggests to you that they are willing to engage there. You know, sometimes these things takes hours to get somebody to be willing to engage. And she had made that progress fairly quickly and felt like she could kind of keep going with that.
And then maybe they could figure out sort of alternative options for this man. And yet, because of the decision had been made to detain him already, she felt like her progress had just been bowled over, bulldozed by the police.
Emily Katz: [00:24:58] If we prioritize this human, in this moment, as opposed to like what your perceived idea of what the risk of the situation is, then I think we could have had a better outcome there.
David Kroman: [00:25:12] And so here you have these two situations where she is thinking, you know, Emily is this nurse at a homeless shelter. She spends all day, every day thinking about her clients, thinking about the systems that led her clients to be there, thinking about how are we going to create a more sustainable situation for these people, and so she's looking at it through that lens.
Meanwhile, Grayson is kind of thinking about it through the public safety lens. Is this man going to hurt himself or is he going to hurt other people? He'd made the decision that, yes, he was. And so, you know, you have these two really, it's hard to know exactly who was right, because I can't say for sure that this man wasn't going to end up getting hit by a bus if he was out in the street.
But, as far as any opportunity to engage him and maybe then bring on a case manager or find him some kind of supportive housing situation, that kind of went out the door when he was detained at the same time. And who knows where that man is now? Probably went through the hospital, probably came back out and back to where he was.
This is one of those scenarios where it didn't have a clear right answer. You just had two very different systems viewing the same situation through very different lenses and in some ways with very different goals.
Emily Katz: [00:26:31] Yeah, I feel like we're on two different planets, but dealing with the same person. And it's really difficult to try and reconcile that in the moment.
David Kroman: [00:26:42] And I've heard this from, I heard this from a few different people, which is that the default, whether this is intentionally trained this way, or just sort of the nature of policing or the people who are in policing, but oftentimes the default for police is to come in and want to control a situation, which if you're thinking of a crime that makes sense. You want to control the situation, you want to eliminate factors, unpredictability and surprises and things like that. But, in those kinds of situations, wearing the police vehicle, coming in with your lights and sirens, having this look of police can aid that situation because it has this air of authority.
So, people are going to kind of default to those police officer's authority. But when you're dealing with a crisis situation, sometimes that level of control can have adverse impacts.
Emily Katz: [00:27:35] You can't just like, come in and sweep, like do make this like sweeping kind of intervention and think that that's going to be successful. It usually isn't. It often requires a lot of give and take and kind of reading people, spending time with them and hearing them out, in order to achieve a good outcome. And that is not the equation that's used with the police.
Sara Bernard: [00:28:06] In fact, even Grayson sometimes finds himself questioning his role in some situations, like when, for example, he and Andrignis were called to an overdose. But it turned out not to be. It was just someone's struggling with their medication.
David Kroman: [00:28:19] A call like that, did that feel like something that you should be responding to?
Sandlin Grayson: [00:28:32] It's a bit of yes and a bit of no. I'm here to protect and keep people safe, so, you know, absolutely happy to go and would love to go. Could there be other options? Absolutely.
Sara Bernard: [00:28:54] Lieutenant Dan Nelson, the former head of SPD's Crisis Response Team says the same thing. A lot of the time police just don't need to be there.
Dan Nelson: [00:29:03] We get a lot of calls like, "Hey, can you just go check on this person? They're muttering to themselves." It's like, well, first off, there's nothing wrong with that. And there's people live with mental health every day. Like is that necessarily police response? I would argue no. I mean, should we as a community, send someone to go check on that person? Probably. Does it need to be to police? No. No, it does not. But there's no other option for an emergency response.
Sara Bernard: [00:29:28] Even the very presence of a uniformed armed officer can complicate things. No matter what the officer is actually doing.
David Kroman: [00:29:34] Is the fear that the very presence of police can escalate a situation? I'm curious what you make of that.
Dan Nelson: [00:29:41] Yeah. I mean, that's definitely a thing and that's something we're very aware of.
David Kroman: [00:29:47] Do you, do you ever encounter trust issues just because you are police and some people have issues with police?
Sandlin Grayson: [00:29:55] Absolutely. Yeah.
David Kroman: [00:29:58] Because if four police officers and four police cars show up to a situation, what have you learned your entire life about what police officers are there to do? It's to stop crime, it's to make arrests.
If you are a person in crisis and you don't have a firm grasp on what's happening already, it's fairly reasonable to think that you would make the assumption that you are now in trouble and you were under arrest. And when officers make the decision to detain somebody and bring them to a hospital...
Sara Bernard: [00:30:28] ... which we should emphasize is something that only police officers and a handful of designated crisis responders in King County can legally do ...
David Kroman: [00:30:35] ... and in fact has all of the look and appearance of making an arrest, even if legally it is not technically an arrest. So that can do a number of things. It can serve to kind of aggravate people who are already aggravated. A lot of people who are experiencing mental health crises out in the world have had pretty negative experiences with police officers in the past, maybe they have some kind of PTSD and that will trigger that.
Daniel Malone: [00:31:01] The people we serve have had way more interactions with police than most people have over the course of their lives. Many people that we serve have feelings about the police that aren't favorable. And so there are reactions that people will have when police are around.
David Kroman: [00:31:29] So that is, I think, for a lot of people, the biggest concern, which is that not only do police officers not always sort of help the situation, sometimes they can make it worse. It's hard to put data on that because you can't compare things that happened against things that never happened. But that is the inherent fear.
And then if the situation gets worse as a result of police officers being there, it is not impossible that that situation can end in a death because police officers have that in their back pocket. If the situation continues to spiral out of control, they can use deadly force. And that is the biggest fear for anybody who works in the world of mental health that when a police officer shows up, it could end up in the death of one of their clients.
Sara Bernard: [00:32:24] This is the worst case scenario, absolute worst case, but it happens. It happens in Seattle and it happens all over the country, all the time. This ability to use force is one of the reasons people don't want police coming into these specific situations, but there are arguments to be made that sometimes they're necessary.
Like a lot of this stuff, it's complicated.
Dan Nelson: [00:32:50] A lot of our calls for service around people in behavioral crisis are from the actual care providers themselves.
Sandlin Grayson: [00:32:56] We're not going to have a successful outcome a hundred percent of the time or the outcome that we want?
David Kroman: [00:33:04] What is DESC's kind of general relationship with the police right now, would you say?
Daniel Malone: [00:33:09] It's varied and complicated, I would say.
Sara Bernard: [00:33:14] That's next time on This Changes Everything.
Thanks for listening to This Changes Everything. This episode was reported by David Kroman and produced by me, Sara Bernard, the story editor was Donna Blankinship and the executive producer was Mark Baumgarten.
You can subscribe to This Changes Everything on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. And if you liked the show, please rate and review us. It really helps other people find us.
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This Changes Everything is a product of Cascade, Public Media.
I'm Sara Bernard. You can listen to all of the episodes in this series right now at crosscut.com, or wherever you get your podcasts.