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Seattle councilmember focused on ‘additive part, not deductive’ with SPD reform

Seattle City Councilmember Andrew Lewis. (Facebook)

On Monday, Seattle councilmembers approved an extensive package of cuts to the police department’s budget. Despite those cuts, though, one councilmember believes that the road forward will be about adding public safety services, not taking them away.

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“My focus has been on the additive part, not the deductive,” Councilmember Andrew Lewis told KIRO Radio’s Gee and Ursula Show. “Policing as presently constituted has not been getting the job done. So, what are we going to do? … I’m going to be thinking about how we deliver first response — what are the inputs? What are people calling 911 about? And then how do we send the appropriate first responders?”

Much of Lewis’ focus is on data provided to the council from SPD, which indicated that 56% of 911 calls in Seattle are noncriminal.

“A lot of them are low acuity public health related calls,” he pointed out. “What that suggested to me is that we need more first response, but that first responder doesn’t necessarily need to be the police.”

He cites a successful program in Eugene, Ore., in place for over 30 years, which employs unarmed medics and mental health workers dispatched by 911, and offers counseling, conflict resolution, housing referrals, first aid, and transport to further services.

In Seattle, Lewis hopes to realize a similar 911 model, and ultimately allow police more time and energy to respond to criminal calls.

“We’re sending (police) to respond to calls that they are not completely equipped to respond to — we should be sending someone that is more equipped and trained to respond to a low acuity health response kind of situation,” he detailed. “Let the police do what the police are trained to do, which is to not be responding to those kinds of calls, which are frankly not an appropriate use of them as first responders.”

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Lewis sees that as the driving reason behind a reduced police force, given the expectation that officers would have a sizable reduction in calls they respond to.

“There’s a way that we can do that and right size our first response, that puts in some new types of first responders,” he said. “If that reduces caseload for the police, then there should also be some reductions to the police.”

That could be coming in the days ahead, given that the council’s recently passed budget eliminates roughly 100 positions within the SPD. That being so, Lewis also notes that over half of that total accounts for voluntary attrition.

“Fifty-five of those are attritional that are going to be done through hiring freezes that the chief and the mayor put forward,” he described. “The other 45 are going to be subject to bargaining and could be lifted because they’re provisional.”

Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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