Training officers to end mental health crisis situations without force or arrest has been a major focus of reform at the Seattle Police Department in recent years. Those trainings now appear to be paying off in a big way. According to a report released by the department this week, officers rarely use force when responding to calls involving people in some form of mental health crisis.
With approximately 9,300 crisis responses reported last year, only 149 (1.6%) involved any use of reportable force, and of these, only 36 (0.4% of crisis responses overall) involved greater than a low-level, Type I use of force.
SPD credited its increased training and data collection for the encouraging trend — reforms that were part of the department’s response to a 2011 federal consent decree over excessive use of force by officers.
In 2011 the Department of Justice estimated that 70% of use of force incidents by Seattle Police involved someone in some form of mental health crisis. Since then a federal monitor has tracked SPD’s progress towards making reforms in decreasing its use of force. Reports over the past year have been mostly positive, which garnered praise from Attorney General Loretta Lynch during her visit to Seattle last year.
SPD provided a handful of examples of what its reforms look like on the ground:
The SPD report covers May 2015 to May 2016 and is SPD’s second annual report on its Crisis Response Team and Crisis Intervention Program. Mayor Ed Murray credited his 2014 hire, Chief Kathleen O’Toole, for increasing the use of de-escalation when officers respond to calls. It is encouraging news as SPD’s top brass strive to bring the department out from beneath the cloud of a federal consent decree.
“Over the last few years under Chief O’Toole’s leadership, SPD has seen marked success in addressing issues related to use of force, particularly when encountering people in crisis,” Murray was quoted as saying in the announcement about the 2015 report. “Historically, these specific encounters too often ended with an officer using force, but today the department has turned its focus to services and de-escalation. This is critical as our city grows and our police continue improving their relationship with the community.”
The report highlighted SPD’s use of individual response plans tailored to people who have repeated interactions with officers. According to SPD, the department has seen a 73% reduction in police hours among 12 people with individual response plans. “Across the board, these individuals had fewer arrests, hospitalizations, and generated fewer 911 calls after their plans were implemented,” the report said.
At least 58% of patrol officers are now CIT-certified, allowing those officers to be at the scene of nearly 75% of crisis incidents. Data analysis by the department showed crisis calls increased steadily throughout the day and peaked around 7 PM, which allowed the department to more adequately prepare for crisis calls.
By the end of 2016, SPD is planning to rollout a new data analytics tool that will offer a granular look at officer interactions. According to SPD, the new tool will “run relational analyses by subject demographic, officer demographic, officer history and assignment, type of call, location, disposition, and any combinations thereof.”
Underlying many of the crisis calls is Seattle’s homeless crisis. Earlier this year, SPD began working with homeless outreach workers on Capitol Hill in an effort to address basic needs like food and dry clothes.
Seattle estimates consent decree reforms have cost the department $40 million,“including $6 million or more per year to hire more sergeants to improve the ratio of supervisors to cops on the street.” Other elements of reform may come at the state level. I-873 could “change the state law on deadly force and make it easier to prosecute police officers who kill” by striking “state of mind language” from the statute governing prosecution of deadly police shootings in Washington.
You can learn more about the 2015 SPD Crisis Intervention Report here.