Mayfield: Please get out of the CARE Team’s way and let it work

Jun 28, 2024, 4:45 AM

Seattle CARE Team...

Seattle CARE Team vehicle. (Photo: Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell's Office)

(Photo: Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell's Office)

Remember when the old Seattle City Council decided to defund the police?  At the time, we heard a lot about non-police alternatives and how law enforcement shouldn’t be responding to many calls involving people in mental health and behavior crises.

What did Seattle do instead? Parking enforcement was moved into a different department (it has subsequently been moved back), the police chief’s salary was slashed (police morale plummeted along with staffing levels), and we did basically nothing regarding non-police alternatives.

Fast forward to today and we continue to pay the price for those terrible choices.

But finally, someone is talking about non-police responders!

This week, the Mayor announced that the Community Assisted Response and Engagement (CARE) team pilot program could be expanding. What started last fall with just six responders focused on downtown could go citywide with 24 responders and three supervisors if the city council approves.

Those folks aim to offer responses to people in crisis seven days a week across Seattle.  The nearly $2-million-dollar expansion cost would be offset by a federal grant.

The idea is to de-escalate situations where a police officer -with a gun – might make things worse. And by all counts, the small targeted pilot is working just as similar non-police responder teams have worked in other cities like Olympia and Eugene, Oregon.  These folks don’t replace police but work in conjunction with law enforcement for a targeted response.  Dispatchers have choices about who to send to a scene that best fits each situation’s circumstances.

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It sounds a lot like what we should have done years ago before we started any actual police defunding. But that’s not how we roll here in Seattle. Never let deliberate and fact-based problem-solving get in the way of political posturing.

Regardless of being so late to all this, we are finally here and by all counts seeing success with the CARE team. That’s why the Mayor wants it expanded.

Still, are 24 responders enough for the number of crisis calls we see in Seattle? It turns out 24 is the limit of the number of these kinds of responders we can actually have right now. The city apparently agreed to that number in the latest labor agreement with the Seattle Police Officer Guild.

I’m not a labor negotiator, but I have been a local journalist for decades and it seems to me that what Seattle Police need most right now is more help. The department hasn’t had a lot of luck hiring to fill its needs. The department’s image hasn’t improved much.  Crime isn’t exactly plummeting across the city. So yea, maybe more help would be good for everyone?

This entire multi-year journey through the Seattle Process has been infuriating and frustrating. But we finally have a glimmer of something workable.

The CARE team can succeed citywide if it gets genuine support from both the police and the political classes.  Here’s to hoping both can get out of their own way so we can all be on our way to something better for Seattle.

Travis Mayfield is a Seattle-based media personality and a fill-in host on KIRO Newsradio. You can read more of his stories and commentaries here.

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Mayfield: Please get out of the CARE Team’s way and let it work