Seattle crisis response team could quadruple in new proposal from mayor By:

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By David KromanThe Seattle Times

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SEATTLE — Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell wants to quadruple the size of Seattle’s official police alternative and make an additional 18 people available to respond to 911 calls that may not need an armed officer.

The expansion request will be sent to the City Council by way of Harrell’s midyear supplemental budget request. It will cost $1.9 million — all of which is covered by a federal grant.

The midyear budget is when the mayor’s office and council make tweaks to the current year’s budget. The city is facing a nearly $260 million budget deficit next year, but the mayor’s office is not making any cuts to this year’s budget in his proposal. He’ll transmit his proposed 2025 budget in the fall.

The Community Assisted Response and Engagement, commonly called CARE, department was born out of the protests of 2020 and demands for first responders who don’t carry a gun and a badge. Since taking office, Harrell launched a pilot program of six responders last fall.

“When I walk downtown, I’m very candid here, I see a lot of people that don’t need to be arrested with handcuffs,” he said. “There are times to make an arrest. There’s a time to love and be compassionate.”

Although Seattle has a slate of organizations that frequently interface with people in crisis or struggling with addiction, the CARE department is the first to be directly hitched to the city’s 911 response system. Staff with the city’s 911 center are housed within the department. Responders can be dispatched directly from 911 or by way of an officer on scene who can request civilian help.

Since launching, CARE members have responded to just over 500 calls. Most of those came by request from a sworn officer, with only about 10% coming directly from 911 dispatch.

The current pilot is restricted to the downtown area. With an expansion, the CARE team would eventually answer calls citywide, beginning with the Capitol Hill and Central District neighborhoods.

There is broad agreement that law enforcement could respond to fewer calls, particularly those involving substance use, mental illness and homelessness. Some estimates found that half of all police calls do not require a sworn officer. The challenge is how to recognize those scenarios up front.

“It’s not our job in the public sector to tell someone who they are and how they will recover,” said Amy Smith, chief of the CARE department. “It is our job to ensure that there is a broad array of resources available for all different kinds of people in all different kinds of circumstances.”

Seattle’s alternative response landscape is broad and growing, creating a sometimes confusing mix of departments and organizations doing overlapping work. In addition to the CARE team, there’s the Community Service Officer team, the Unified Care team, the Metropolitan Improvement District ambassadors, Designated Crisis Responders, the Let Everyone Advance with Dignity team and more.

Speaking Wednesday, Harrell declined to put a limit on how large the CARE department could eventually grow. Smith has said she’s modeled the department in large part on Albuquerque’s alternative response system, which has more than 150 people.

At 24 responders and more supervisors, the CARE department is still in its pilot phase. Smith has warned against growing it too quickly. Additionally, an agreement with the Seattle Police Officers Guild limits how large CARE can grow, something Harrell said he’d like to revisit.

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