Seattle councilmember: Changing how city responds to 911 calls needs to be priority
While Seattle councilmembers debated a potential $5.4 million budget cut to the city’s police department on Tuesday, Councilmember Andrew Lewis looked to point the council’s long-term priorities toward a larger goal of fixing its 911 response efforts.
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Lewis has long been an advocate for changing how Seattle responds to 911 calls, specifically by building out a team of medics and social workers to respond to “low acuity” mental health crises, akin to what cities like Eugene, Ore., and Denver, Colo., currently have in place.
In Eugene, that’s taken the form of a team known as Crisis Assistance Helping out on the Streets (CAHOOTS), which has been around since 1989. Denver’s Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) program was more recently put into place, starting with a pilot that kicked off in June 2020.
On Tuesday, Lewis intimated that Denver’s STAR team could be something Seattle can use as a model, especially as a relatively low-cost program that’s garnered praise from the city’s own police department.
For just $1.4 million a year, STAR employs six medics, six mental health clinicians, and four response vans providing seven-day-a-week coverage for Denver. For reference, Lewis noted that $5.4 million the council originally debated cutting from SPD would be enough to fund 14 vans, 21 medics, and 21 mental health clinicians.
“I only raise that to say the cost of those replacements relative to the cost of police is something that’s really worth considering, especially when we look at what the result has been in the STAR program in Denver, in how that has actually responded to a lot of these ongoing chronic issues on the street,” Lewis said during Tuesday’s public safety committee meeting.
In just its first six months, STAR reported responding to 748 emergency calls in the downtown Denver area. During those calls, there were no arrests made, and police were never needed for additional assistance.
Of the calls STAR received, a majority were for trespassing and welfare checks, with mental health and drug use as the two most prevalent issues responders dealt with. Forty-one percent of those served were successfully referred to shelters, crisis centers, or hospitals.
Despite Seattle City Council’s own focus largely revolving around SPD’s budget, Lewis sees the success of STAR as a reason to have civilian mental response efforts be the focus of future discussions.
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“That’s unrelated to our discussion here, but I do think that we need to increasingly emphasize that there are great alternatives out there that are going to be able to fill the void of what a lot of folks in the community are expressing concern about and seeing, in terms of some of the public health and public safety challenges that we have as a city,” he detailed.
In the short term, the council is looking to put money into smaller scale efforts like community service officers to “get some of those resources out there faster.” Longer term, though, Lewis believes that a devoted, well-funded team of mental health responders should be the ultimate goal.
“We have to keep building toward something like a STAR response program that is community based, provider based, and can respond to the types of issues we are seeing,” he said.