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All 3 finalists for Seattle police chief support more civilian crisis responders

caption: A Seattle Police vehicle sits parked at Hing Hay Park in the heart of Seattle's Chinatown-International District Thursday, March 18, 2021.
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A Seattle Police vehicle sits parked at Hing Hay Park in the heart of Seattle's Chinatown-International District Thursday, March 18, 2021.

Three finalists to become Seattle’s next police chief made their case to the public in a televised interview Thursday. Those finalists are interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz, Assistant Seattle Chief Eric Greening, and Kevin Hall, assistant chief in Tucson, Arizona.

Diaz said he has made progress on recruitment while leading the department for 26 months “in the midst of chaos” after anti-police protests and an exodus of officers. Greening said he would bring new engagement and "procedural justice" to SPD leadership. And Hall said he has not applied for any other police chief position and has his sights set on this job as the capstone of his career.

The first question the candidates faced is what alternatives to policing they support. All three described a broader crisis response role for workers who are not members of law enforcement, which they said could also improve service and take pressure off sworn officers who are stretched thin.

Diaz said over the last year SPD has analyzed which 911 calls could be assigned to four different types of responses: 1) A police officer; 2) A police officer with a mental health professional or other non-law enforcement responder; 3) The social worker or mental health professional is the primary responder, but an officer is still present; and 4) A non-law enforcement response.

Diaz says in the third type of response, the police officer would provide backup while the mental health professional takes the lead in offering assistance.

"There might be a high propensity for violence and the social service worker doesn’t feel comfortable being in that environment so they want to make sure there’s an officer there but not necessarily primary in taking full responsibility for providing people into housing or social services, etc.," Diaz said.

Greening said he would like to dispatch non-sworn community service officers to certain calls for service.

That “would cut down the wait time when folks are calling 911, they can get a community service officer there to navigate whatever issue they have if it’s non-criminal," Greening said, adding that “also frees the officers up to deal with violent crime. I think the officers would appreciate some support and help.”

Greening said he’d also expand SPD’s existing Crisis Response Unit, in which police and mental health professionals respond to certain calls together.

“Right now there’s five sworn officers, there’s five mental health professionals. I would love to see the unit double in size," he said. "They do great work, their hearts are in it."

Hall said Tucson is already sending non-law enforcement "crisis clinician teams" to answer certain calls, and inserting them in the 911 dispatch center. He said as long as calls are triaged correctly, there is room for responses from these other specialties.

“There are places such as Tucson and other places in the country where it is an unarmed crisis clinician team that goes to these calls, not police," Hall said.

(Seattle’s Health One program may be a similar initiative. It pairs firefighters with case workers to follow up with people who have had recent contact with the 911 system.)

Hall said Tucson and other cities have also embedded crisis clinicians in the 911 center, “which is the gateway to the criminal justice system.”

He said that helps the 911 dispatchers learn to better triage calls and improve responses to people in crisis.

“Another thing we noticed in Tucson is [crisis clinicians] are really, really good at deescalating panicked, hysterical callers who are in a very bad situation,” he said.

During the interview on the Seattle Channel, the SPD chief candidates were also asked about their approaches to gun violence and violent crime in general.

Greening identified three crime hotspots in the city. They include Bitterlake in North Seattle where he said there has been “a number of homicides in last four to five months and general sense of disorder,” as well as the downtown core and Chinatown International District and SODO.

He said SPD has limited resources which he would place in those areas with a visible police presence.

“You concentrate on those areas,” Greening said. “The random patrolling, the 911 response — it’s not working.”

Hall said he looks to data-driven approaches and while “the research is all over the place with this,” Chicago and other places are seeing some promising results with “violence interrupters” to prevent gun violence. Seattle has embraced those efforts as well.

“It’s the community coming in, credible messengers, violence interrupters who have lived experiences and can be trained to mediate at the street level disputes, to intervene, to prevent shootings and to actually engage with the community, mentor youth and keep the shootings from occurring,” Hall said.

Interim Chief Diaz said SPD is conducting several types of analysis to better enhance its emergency response and flag concerns with racial disparities and over-policing.

He said a new analysis of all investigative police stops will indicate “potentially biased policing or stopping people of color at a higher rate,” and provide results “in real time” rather than looking at past stops.

Another study uses GPS systems in police vehicles to identify “how we police, whether we’re over-policing a community or under-policing a community so we can better respond to a community’s needs,” he said.

And yet another ongoing analysis captures the voice recordings on officer body cameras to “see if there’s anything we’re escalating or de-escalating in a situation, to really enhance our customer service,” Diaz said.

“So these are game-changers to how we’re actually doing policing and how we’re changing culture.”

A member of Seattle’s police chief search committee said the process went smoothly and he believes any of the finalists would be an effective choice for the city.

Search committee

Bishop Reggie Witherspoon, senior pastor at the Mount Calvary Christian Center, is one of the 14 people appointed to the search committee by Mayor Bruce Harrell. The committee narrowed 15 applicants to five finalists, who were then winnowed to the final three by a separate group of public safety experts.

Witherspoon says he heard from community members who want the next chief to work on healing racial divides and stamping out implicit bias.

“How do we bring together a police department with communities of color, particularly, who have not historically had the best relationships,” he said. “We really drove that message home, because it was something the community seemed to resoundingly say needed to be addressed.”

Seattle’s last permanent chief was Carmen Best, the first Black woman to lead the department. She resigned in 2020 after anti-police protests and budget cuts.

Witherspoon said he has heard comments about the absence of any female finalists this time around.

“We felt these were the top best candidates and there was unfortunately no female who made that list,” he said, but he believes the selection process was sound.

“I feel very confident that our city will be in good hands with the next police chief," Witherspoon said. "The mayor has done a great job in putting this process together.”

Harrell is expected to meet with the three finalists now that they have made their case to the public. The mayor’s office isn’t saying when he’ll announce his final pick. That person will be subject to confirmation by the Seattle City Council.

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