The problem with Seattle’s experiment in defusing the police so far is not that there are fewer police officers now. It is that nothing has replaced them.
“I feel like the city is defeating the police backwards,” says Jeff Anderson. “They started with what they should have done last.”
Anderson, a manager at an architecture firm in Belltown, found himself in the thick of it. Like many companies there, he faces low-level street crime outside of the office on a daily basis – drug trafficking, trespassing, vandalism, and so on. There has been a small camp at the front of the company building on Third Avenue for the past six months.
Six tents are hidden under the eaves of the building on the sidewalk – which technically means that they are not on public land, but on the company premises.
“We were hesitant to call the police,” says Anderson. So they contacted some nonprofit social service organizations and homeless groups. They came out and brought blankets and the like, although no one could lure people from the property into the shelter.
As the group grows, so does “threatening behavior, drug trafficking and drug use,” says Anderson. “I’ll be back from lunch and someone will be sitting in a chair by our front door and shooting heroin.”
After a worker was beaten on the street, Anderson eventually did two things: He placed the building on the Seattle trespassing program, which aims to allow police to remove squatters from private property. And he started calling the police for help.
Officers stopped by once. According to Anderson, they said, “Well, the police have been defused, so there’s nothing we can do about it.”
“Now we have to be on the ‘don’t worry’ list because nobody is coming,” he says. “I thought about calling every day, but I don’t want to make a totally squeaky bike out of myself.”
This is a sensitive issue, partly due to the coronavirus, which the city says has made moving sidewalk bearings difficult. The pandemic has also effectively reduced the amount of shelter due to the space needed to protect people from the virus.
However, when crimes are committed or when a building is entered, you should call the police. This is what they tell you: call 911.
The police admitted last week that they really don’t handle such things anymore. They told the city council that they were struggling to respond to higher priority calls like assault or domestic violence, let alone lower-level situations like the one in Belltown.
“Due to the cascading effects of COVID-19, the risk of layoffs and the recent budget cuts, the SPD is facing an extreme staff shortage, the future effects of which are not fully known,” said a presentation by the police authority.
“The reality is that not much is being done,” boss Adrian Diaz told the council. “Sustainable problem solving is basically in the break.”
Last year, 186 officials resigned, many after the city council cut the budget by $ 46 million, as the first blow to the police. This was only an 11% cut, so the council promised far more cuts were on the way (the stated aim of the majority of council members at the time was to cut 50%).
“The SPD is in a personnel crisis,” a deputy mayor told the council last week.
If it’s a crisis, it’s intentional. The department is the smallest in more than a decade. But that is exactly what the Council wanted to do.
Anderson makes the most important point: That this is all happening in reverse order to what it would make sense to do.
One of the prerequisites for defusing the police has been to reduce the frequency with which officers with weapons are dealing with nonviolent drug or mental health problems on the streets. For this to work, when someone like Anderson calls 911, the city needs to send social workers or other non-police workers to help.
Where are these replacements? In last year’s budget, the city financed five psychiatrists who were supposed to ride with the police in the so-called Crisis Response Team. But do the math: we lost 186 officers and … gained five advisors?
Last week, US Representative Adam Smith, D-Bellevue, proposed a grant program in Congress to begin switching emergency calls for many non-violent incidents outside the police force.
“Instead of sending the police into a behavioral crisis, specialist service providers like social workers, medical professionals and peer support counselors would respond,” said Smith.
It’s a fantastic idea. There are questions as to whether such a team needs police on the side if violence breaks out. Anyway – shouldn’t Seattle have staffed this before it started chopping off the police?
“I would like to call 911 and say, ‘There are people in this building in crisis, it’s getting out of hand,’ and I want social workers to show up to help them,” said Anderson.
Instead, nobody comes.
Maybe it’s the pandemic and such core city services will automatically improve when they end. But if the police look like that at all, they will fail. It is nice.
[email protected]; Danny Westneat takes a look at the news, people and politics of the Puget Sound area.