Mar 9, 2023 - Politics

Seattle's alternative 911 response program falls behind schedule

Illustration of a rotary phone with a knot in the wire.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

A Seattle program to develop alternative responses to 911 calls is months behind schedule — and some city council members are getting frustrated with the delay.

Why it matters: Following the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, city officials committed to the alternative 911 program as part of a strategy to reduce violent encounters between police and the public.

The program aims to send mental health responders to some calls police have traditionally answered, including ones involving people experiencing a mental health crisis.

Yes, but: A timeline agreed to in September said the mayor's office would submit a plan for a pilot program by Dec. 22, and a framework for a permanent system of alternative 911 responses by Dec. 31.

  • Neither deadline was met, and neither plan has been produced.

What they're saying: City Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who chairs the council's public safety committee, expressed frustration at a meeting last week that the pilot program isn't further along, given that the mayor's office had agreed it would be ready to implement in early 2023.

  • "We need to make sure that we're driving this forward and creating some momentum where there currently appears to be very little," Herbold said.
  • Councilmember Andrew Lewis said that the council may need to take a "more assertive role" on the program, noting it "sounds like the executive is behind on almost every deliverable" the mayor's office had agreed to provide.

The other side: Jamie Housen, spokesperson for Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell, wrote in a statement to Axios that because the work is complex and involves so many departments, "the outcomes, programs, or timelines may have to shift in scope."

  • Housen said the proposed framework for a permanent alternative 911 response program is "currently in legal review," while the pilot program "is scheduled to launch later this year."
  • "Advancing this critical and innovative public safety work takes time to ensure it is done right," he said.

Details: The pilot is designed to test approaches for dispatching social workers or other trained mental health professionals into the field, before the city decides on an alternative 911 response system to deploy permanently.

  • Police are still going to respond to calls about people who have weapons or who pose an imminent threat.
  • But city officials said service workers could respond to other situations, like someone who is muttering to themselves at a bus stop or who is sleeping outside in the cold without adequate clothing.

By the numbers: The City Council put an additional $717,000 toward the program last year, on top of about $1.9 million already budgeted for the next two years.

What's next: The city needs to finalize which specific types of calls will receive an alternative 911 response as part of the pilot. That's something the mayor's office originally was supposed to have narrowed down by October.

  • A work group of city officials, including from the mayor's office, will meet next week to try to tackle that issue, Herbold told Axios.

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