Seattle Mayor Harrell looks to form third public safety department for unarmed responders

Jan 13, 2022, 12:56 PM | Updated: Jan 14, 2022, 7:20 am
Bruce Harrell inaugural address...
Bruce Harrell being sworn in as Seattle's next mayor. (Seattle Channel)
(Seattle Channel)

Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell wants to supplement the city’s police and fire departments with a third public safety department.

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One of the primary challenges facing Seattle’s new mayoral administration is a Seattle Police Department that chronically reports being understaffed. Last week, SPD reported 948 deployable officers, and city officials note that number should be closer to 1,500.

The last year has seen multiple attempts by the mayor’s office and Seattle City Council to decouple SPD from some of its former responsibilities such that it can operate at lower staffing levels. In August, the council moved traffic enforcement away from SPD to the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT). With the council’s 2022 budget, $1.9 million was allocated toward Triage One, an emergency service dispatch unit intended to reduce the city’s reliance on police as the reflexive crisis response.

The Seattle Fire Department has moved in a similar direction with Health One, designed to provide services in non-life threatening situations to clients who require assistance integrating into the city’s social service network. Health One expanded with a third operation center in south Seattle in December.

Adding to that milieu is a speculative third emergency services department.

“I want to create a third department, which is an unarmed unit, that will be masters at de-escalation,” Harrell said in an interview Thursday with KIRO Newsradio’s Gee Scott and Ursula Reutin Show.

“This is not a park ranger or a community service officer — this is a step below an armed officer.”

Details were sparse, and the plan has not been officially announced. However, Harrell did elaborate on the genesis of the program and why his office is interested in moving in this direction.

“The creation of this third department is where major cities must go in light of some of the political and social movements we see in this country, and I think it makes a heck of a lot of sense,” Harrell said.

Seattle CM: Changing how city responds to 911 calls needs to be priority

The exact purview of the department is unclear, although the mayor suggested that parking enforcement could be one of its responsibilities. Harrell mentioned that its transfer to SDOT “is still an awkward place,” and that “we’re going to look at a lot of those kinds of functions where the traditional police do not have to go.”

Harrell emphasized that the recruitment of the hypothetical department will be community-driven.

“They will [be] community members themselves [who] will be culturally competent,” Harrell elaborated. “Many people want to protect their own communities, I want to give them the tools to be able to do that.”

“I will go to high schools, and I’ll go to colleges, and we will recruit. But they have to believe that we’re trying to found a community trust, and the officers themselves have to help me. I’m meeting with officers as we speak, telling them, ‘Look, do you see the same Seattle that I see?’”

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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Seattle Mayor Harrell looks to form third public safety department for unarmed responders