Red and gold "Health One" SUV from Seattle Fire Dept.

Seattle’s Newest Department Aims to Change the City’s Response to Crisis Calls

by Paul Kiefer

(This article originally appeared on PubliCola and has been reprinted under an agreement.)

The last time the City of Seattle launched a new department — Seattle Information Technology, which brought IT staff from across the city under one roof — the consolidation took years. “In contrast, we had about eight months,” said Chris Lombard, who leads the City’s newest department: the Community Safety and Communications Center (CSCC), which began work at the beginning of June.

In some ways, creating the CSCC involved fewer moving parts than the infamously messy set-up of the massive citywide IT department. When plans to move the parking enforcement unit to the CSCC fell through this spring, Lombard was left overseeing a single, crucial service: Seattle’s 911 call center. The center, historically a civilian unit inside the Seattle Police Department, will play a key role in the City’s efforts to shift away from a police-centric approach to public safety, and the City’s decision to house the 911 call center in the new department was one of the first concrete steps in that effort.

On the surface, the 911 call center hasn’t changed much since it left SPD. The dispatchers sit in the same cubicles in the same unmarked office. On one side of the room, call-takers try to draw out the most pertinent information from people in distress while racing the clock; on the other, dispatchers direct police officers to high-priority calls; and in the middle, a team of supervisors watches from a raised platform.

When a call-taker thinks that an emergency would be better handled by the Seattle Fire Department — an agency with more response options than SPD — they reach out to the fire department’s internal dispatch center, which was Lombard’s turf before he joined the CSCC. “Right now, [the fire department] is the gateway to a lot of resources, like mental health care or clinical referrals,” Lombard explained. “On our end, we’re still trying to figure out how we can connect people to more resources.” Last year, the 911 center transferred 17% of calls to the fire department.

But the City’s goal in transferring the 911 call center to the CSCC wasn’t merely to reduce the role of the police department on paper. Practically every elected official and candidate for City office has voiced their support for scaling back SPD’s responsibilities by diverting more emergency calls to non-police responders. As new options become available to respond to emergency calls, 911 dispatchers will be responsible for deciding who arrives on the scene first — police, the fire department, or civilian mental health specialists, for example.

For now, dispatchers are still limited to two options: police or fire. The City’s big plans for the CSCC are still on the horizon, and in the meantime, Lombard and his staff are sorting out the basics. The center hired its first human resources staffer within the past month, but other vacancies have been hard to fill. “Even though 911 operations were a civilian section within SPD, a prospective applicant had to go to SPD’s website to find job listings,” he explained. “It’s no secret that the police department has been struggling to get recruits, and [the 911 center] got caught downwind and fell victim to the same trend.”

At the same time, Lombard added, the existing CSCC staff are still processing the significance of their departure from SPD. For some long-time employees who were loyal to SPD, Lombard said that the shift has been “almost like a divorce.” But for other employees who felt taken for granted by SPD, the prospect of eventually taking a more active role in the City’s public safety system is a welcome change. “This is exciting for a lot of the staff,” said Lombard. “For the first time, they feel like the focus will be on us and what we can add to emergency response.”

One of the first chances for dispatchers to play a larger role in the crisis response system could come with the eventual launch of a program tentatively known as “Triage One,” a team of civilian responders the 911 center could dispatch in lieu of police to respond to low-acuity, non-medical crisis calls. The Triage One proposal is modeled partially after the fire department’s Health One units, and the Seattle City Council is still considering whether to house the program in the fire department or the CSCC.

If the Triage One units become part of the CSCC, 911 dispatchers would be able to communicate directly with the units, giving dispatchers a third option (in addition to police and the fire department’s internal dispatch system) when deciding where to direct an emergency call.

The other potential game-changer in reducing the number of calls the 911 center refers to police is the rollout of the state’s 988 system next year. During the last state legislative session, lawmakers approved a plan to stand up a new statewide crisis hotline for mental health emergencies. The 988 hotline will have three dispatch centers across the state, including one that covers all of King County; among other responses, the dispatchers will be able to send civilian mental health specialists to respond to emergencies.

State Rep. Tina Orwall (D-33), who sponsored the bill that laid the foundations for Washington’s 988 system, doesn’t know how the hotline’s dispatchers will interact with Seattle’s 911 center. However, she does expect the CSCC to train its staff about when and how to pass callers to 988 and vice versa. She also hopes the need to refer 988 callers to 911 — which would happen if the dispatchers decide that a crisis merits a police response — will wane over time.

But some on the ground think that plans to introduce new emergency hotlines and civilian response teams could overwhelm social service providers. Brandie Flood, the director of community justice for the outreach nonprofit REACH, cautioned that housing and health care providers who can offer long-term support to people in crisis are already overstretched. “We could add a bunch of other response teams, but if there aren’t new or expanded pathways to get people in crisis the kind of back-end services they need, we just have too many cooks in the kitchen,” she said.

And drawing a line between 911 calls that merit a police response and calls that dispatchers refer to 988 or Triage One could open a new opportunity for racial bias, Flood said. “The boundary between a criminal call and a mental health call is subjective, and we live in a racist society, so it’s likely that Black and Brown people’s behavior will more often be labeled as criminal or dangerous,” she said. “The dispatcher is going to be the one who makes that decision based on what they discern from the caller… [they] will need to be able to see through bias and decide who should respond, but that’s an opportunity for their own biases to come out. The risk in creating an independent emergency call center is that we just reinforce a racist system.”

The move to the CSCC also means that any misconduct allegations against call center operators will be handled by an internal affairs unit rather than an independent oversight body.  Until June, staff at the 911 call center staff fell under the jurisdiction of the Office of Police Accountability (OPA), which investigated between 30 and 40 complaints about 911 dispatchers between 2016 and 2021. Among the most notable recent cases was a dispatch supervisor fired last year for assigning herself overtime to supplement her income despite being unqualified to answer emergency calls and another dispatcher who was fired in April for telling a Black caller that “all lives matter” during a call about a car break-in.

Lombard says that verifying an allegation against a dispatcher will be relatively simple, because the CSCC keeps records of almost every phone conversation and keystroke. “If a call-taker is searching an address in South Seattle when they’re supposed to be coordinating a response in Northgate, we can easily pull up that evidence,” Lombard said.

OPA Dir. Andrew Myerberg agreed that the CSCC’s internal investigations will likely be simpler than the cases his office investigates. The investigations will also be faster, he added, because (unlike SPD) the CSCC isn’t subject to federal oversight, nor will an outside agency (like the Office of Inspector General) need to review the results of misconduct allegations. Even if the new oversight system for dispatchers is faster and less transparent, Myerberg thinks that could be appropriate. “In some respects it’s a balancing test,” he said. Police misconduct, which he thinks is of the greatest concern to the public, “may simply warrant more resources, in-depth investigations, and oversight than dispatcher cases.”

But as the City plans to give dispatchers a more active role in shaping the outcomes of crisis calls, the CSCC might rise from obscurity — and face more public scrutiny.

Paul Faruq Kiefer is a journalist, historian, and born-and-bred Seattleite. He has published work with KUOW, North Carolina Public Radio, and The Progressive magazine, and he is currently working on a podcast for KUAF in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Paul reports on police accountability for PubliCola.

📸 Featured Image: Photo by Paul Faruq Kiefer.

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