Seattle’s dual dispatch police alternative is expanding citywide

The CARE department will hire 18 additional responders, three supervisors and work seven days a week addressing mental and behavioral health crises.

two people in blue jackets stand on the street in downtown seattle

CARE team community crisis responders Abdillahi Mohamed, left, and Sasha Pollock wait to cross 3rd Avenue at Pine Street, an intersection known for frequent drug activity and police repsonse in downtown. CARE teams work with SPD to handle mental and behavioral health emergencies, freeing up police to deal with crime and public safety. (Genna Martin/Cascade PBS)

Seattle’s experiment with non-police responses to certain 911 emergencies is getting a boost this year.  

Mayor Bruce Harrell and acting CARE chief Amy Smith announced Wednesday that the pilot program would expand citywide from its current greater-Downtown operating boundaries. With that, the staff will grow from six responders to 24, along with three supervisors, and provide service seven days a week.

The Community Assisted Response and Engagement (CARE) pilot program launched last October. The program sends mental health experts out with police officers to respond to people having mental or behavioral health crises.  

The idea is to de-escalate situations in which an armed officer might increase a person’s distress (analysis by the Treatment Advocacy Center found that people with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during encounters with law enforcement).  

Some police alternative programs, such as those in Olympia and Eugene, send non-police responders on 911 calls without an officer. Seattle’s CARE is a dual-dispatch model that requires police to be aware of CARE's responses. In some scenarios that means an officer assessing a scene for safety first before leaving for other higher-priority calls. In others, CARE responders can be dispatched directly to a scene without police on site.

Responders might provide someone with supplies for their basic needs such as food, water or socks. They also deal with people experiencing suicidal ideation, make referrals and provide rides to shelters and other services.  

Under the expanded program, CARE responders will be able to refer people directly to Downtown Emergency Service Center’s Crisis Solutions Center, something that previously required a referral from an SPD officer.  

“I'm fully committed to creating a city that is safe for everyone,” Harrell said at a press conference Wednesday. “And we know that diversifying and iterating our emergency response options is going to be the key to this kind of work.” 

The mayor also announced that he will refer Smith to the City Council for confirmation as permanent chief of CARE.  

In its first six months of operations, CARE responded to 539 calls. Smith said that about 88% of those referrals came from police officers on scene already, rather than 911 dispatchers. The acting chief said she expects many more referrals to come directly from 911 dispatch in the future and that upward of 50% of 911 calls are not violent or medical emergencies that require a police or fire response.  

CARE’s ability to scale up is limited by an agreement between the city and the Seattle Police Officers Guild, which caps the number of responders and the scenarios they can respond to. Smith said that she requested the agreement's cap of 24 responders for the first two years to give the program time to figure out its role among emergency responders before expanding.

Harrell said the city is bargaining with SPOG over that cap as part of negotiations for the next police union contract. “I think that SPOG understands that policing in 2024, 2025 and the future is changing.”  

CARE’s expansion is paid for in part by a $1.9 million federal grant the city received. The mayor’s office said the program should still be considered a pilot. Seattle University will analyze and evaluate the program’s expansion citywide.  

Smith expects to start hiring the expanded team later this summer and hopes to be working citywide by the end of the year. 

Correction: This article was updated to clarify police officers' role in the dual dispatch model and provide additional information about the bargaining agreement between the city and SPOG.

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