The Seattle City Council is preparing to make decisions on the 2021 budget that will significantly impact how, or if, police will respond when you call in an emergency. Unfortunately, the council is making these critical decisions apparently without ever having examined meaningful data on the need for police services in Seattle — even after former Chief Carmen Best resigned in part because of its unwillingness to meet with her and discuss.
A close look at the data shows that Seattle police officers spend most of their time responding to calls for service that come from the residents, employees, visitors, and businesses of Seattle. In fact, 94% of dispatched police responses in 2019 were either ranked “priority 1” (emergency — lights and sirens, threat to life); “priority 2” (urgent — threat of escalation or harm if help does not arrive soon); or “priority 3” (requiring prompt assistance, typically with a victim waiting).
In 2019, the last full year of data available, Seattle’s roughly 600 police officers who work patrol responded to more than 280,000 priority 1, 2, or 3 incidents, including:
■ 10,657 assaults, including 3,870 assaults in-progress and 333 incidents where a person was shot or shot at;
■ 3,664 shots fired or weapons reports (callers heard shots fired or saw weapons displayed);
■ 1,776 robbery or carjacking reports;
■ 10,557 burglary calls, including 5,498 residential burglaries and 1,415 burglary in-progress;
■ 8,977 auto thefts;
■ 6,631 domestic violence related calls and an additional 2,995 calls related to violations of domestic-violence court orders;
■ 17,055 theft calls (not including the thousands of shoplifts that are reported online and do not get a police dispatch);
■ 579 rape calls;
■ 1,409 reports of children who had been abandoned, abused, molested or neglected.
Let’s not lose sight that these calls represent your friends and neighbors — and children — who are experiencing either a very bad day or a horrific one.
In addition to calls for police service about crime, Seattle police also responded to thousands of calls requiring urgent and reliable assistance on noncriminal matters, including: 13,413 auto accidents (3,149 with injuries); 1,485 missing person cases; 882 deaths (which require a police report before the body can be moved); and more than 4,000 calls to urgently assist the Seattle Fire Department with its emergency responses.
The Seattle Police Department must field officers to respond to these calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. But while the number of incidents and calls for service requiring a police response has steadily increased over the past decade (50% more priority 1 calls and 47% more assault and burglary incidents), the total number of police officers has remained relatively flat. Indeed, under the council’s planned budget there would be about the same number of officers next year as there were a decade ago.
Both advocates for defunding the police and many council members seem to believe that a significant percentage of police time is spent handling minor matters or tasks that could be easily shifted to nonprofit service providers. This misconception was on display last month at a critical police budget hearing.
Councilmember Tammy Morales stated that more than half of police responses were for “nuisance” matters (the real number is under 6%). Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, the Budget Committee chair, offered that a registered nurse practitioner at the police call center could alleviate a significant portion of police calls (medical calls are already routed to Fire Department dispatch). And Councilmember Lisa Herbold, the chair of the council’s Public Safety Committee, suggested that maybe the police should consider prioritizing calls for service (prioritization is the very foundation of the police dispatch system).
To maintain basic levels of police response in Seattle, interim Chief Adrian Diaz made the difficult but necessary decision to cannibalize key investigative units and assign those officers to patrol work. But that stopgap measure means many Seattle crime victims are even less likely to see justice.
And good luck getting help if a known identity thief wreaks havoc on your life — there is already a backlog of almost 9,500 fraud cases for that overworked two-detective unit. Car stolen? Expect to wait five to 10 hours under current staffing levels before you can get a police report necessary to file an insurance claim.
For years, the Seattle Police Department has been telling us that it does not have sufficient officers to respond to the more than 700 calls for service that it receives every day. The data backs it up — most council members just don’t want to hear it. The council’s willful ignorance about what Seattle police officers really do will have a foreseeable result: Fewer officers available and longer response times (if any response) the next time someone in Seattle is unfortunate enough to need police services.