Some calls go unanswered as Seattle Police change priority protocol
If you call 911, you might not get an officer to respond to your situation if your call is determined to be of low priority, according to a new policy put in place by the Seattle Police Department.
Last year, under the previous program, when call volume is too high for SPD to respond to, the department would issue a call priority status alert to the 911 call centers, causing all lower-priority calls to be ended at this stage.
There were 223 days when SPD issued this alert and did not respond to these lower priority calls for a period of time in the day.
At a meeting of the Public Safety and Human Services Committee (PSHS) of the Seattle City Council, the new call priority system was discussed alongside a new measure passed in the police management contract.
Under the new system, the calls determined to be a level 3 or 4 priority are logged, and the caller is asked if they are simply reporting the incident or would like to follow up with an officer. These lower priority calls include noise complaints, reports of an off-leash dog, or beach campfires.
From there, a supervisor, if available, will go through the call logs and respond back to incidents that they subjectively think are ongoing issues and need a follow-up. Otherwise, calls are marked with the “z-disposition action” and are cleared by a supervisor from the list of incidents set for SPD to respond to.
Greg Doss, a senior analyst at the PSHS committee meeting explained the process of supervisors using the “z-protocol.”
“The SPD supervisors make the subjective call using the z-protocol criteria, and if there is a call back request, they do attempt to make that call if available,” Doss said. “I don’t want to speculate what that protocol is.”
Alongside this, overtime spending for officers has doubled from 2021 and is expected to get worse heading into the summer when more officers are needed as events become more and more common.
This year the overtime budget for SPD was $26.4 million, of which $6.2 million has already been spent in the first three months of the year. Compared to last year’s overtime budget of $25.4 million, only $3.6 million was spent in the same timespan.
In the meeting, Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda questioned how the protocol for determining which calls were considered a significant enough priority to receive a response, especially among rising issues of police presence investigating issues like sexual assault.
“It sounds like the 911 dispatchers were put in the impossible and uncomfortable situation of having to tell someone that was making a priority 3 or 4 call that basically ‘we aren’t taking those calls right now, please call back later,'” said Mosqueda. “I appreciate that this is working on not putting those workers in this situation, I just have some questions on who makes the final decisions [to authorize z-protocol].”
Councilmember Sara Nelson believes the policy change is the result of understaffing. Per a recent SPD finance and response time report, response times have increased at all Seattle precincts over the past four years.
“Let’s be clear, the Seattle Police Department has lost over 400 personnel since 2020,” said Nelson. “Investigators, 100 of them, have been moved out of specialty units like sexual assault and into patrol. There still aren’t enough officers out there to ensure a rapid response to 911 calls.”