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Seattle councilmember unveils bill to reshape how city responds to 911 calls

Seattle police officers Wes Phillips, left, and Tori Newborn talk with Corvin Dobschutz as part of Seattle’s Navigation Team. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis is introducing a new bill Monday, which would establish and fund 911 first-responder assistance for mental health and substance addiction emergencies.

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The proposal is based on a similar program established in 1989 in Eugene, Oregon, known as the Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets (CAHOOTS). Eugene’s service is composed of unarmed medics and mental health workers dispatched by 911, and offering counseling, conflict resolution, housing referrals, first aid, and transport to further services.

This comes in the midst of a national discussion over the respective roles of 911 responders and shifting a portion of calls away from the purview of police.

“When a building is on fire we send the fire department. When someone has a stroke we send an ambulance. Why do we send armed police to help someone in a mental health or drug-related crisis?” Lewis said in a news release. “By the most conservative estimates, one in every four people fatally shot by a police officer has a mental illness. This has to stop.”

CAHOOTS responds to roughly 20% of all 911 calls for service. In 2019, it responded to 24,000 total calls, just 150 of which required police assistance. Over 60% of the people CAHOOTS has served are homeless. According to the program’s own estimates, it has saved Eugene $8.5 million in policing costs since it was enacted, and $14 million in emergency medical response money.

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Councilmember Lewis’ proposal will look to fully fund the program by cutting into the Seattle Police Department’s budget.

“It makes sense that if we significantly reduce SPD’s caseload, we should reduce their funding as well,” he noted.

The council has been working to reimagine the city’s police budget in the wake of ongoing protests across the United States. Councilmembers have expressed a willingness to cut funding for SPD by as much as 50%, and are currently working with the department to get a better sense for how its current budget is spent.

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