Of 2,464 “crisis” reports between May 15 and Aug. 15, less than 2 percent resulted in any use of force by police, and none of the cases resulted in use of deadly force, according to Seattle police.
A three-page form created by the Seattle Police Department as part of federally mandated reforms has yielded a staggering statistic: The department is on track to log roughly 10,000 incident reports annually involving contacts with the mentally ill.
Moreover, the numbers show police are using force in a tiny fraction of the encounters.
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), in its 2011 finding that Seattle police too often resorted to excessive force, noted many of the victims were people with mental illness or under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
As part of a court-ordered consent decree between the DOJ and the city, the Police Department began tracking use of force against the mentally ill or people in some type of crisis.
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Officers fill out the three-page template any time they believe someone suspected of a crime or a disturbance is mentally ill or in a state of personal crisis.
The department released figures last week from its first tracking period.
The figures show officers filled out 2,464 “crisis” reports between May 15 and Aug. 15 — a figure that computes to just under 10,000 in a year.
Less than 2 percent of those incidents resulted in any use of force by police, and none of the cases resulted in use of deadly force, according to the Police Department.
U.S. Attorney Annette Hayes, in a statement, called the data “very encouraging and demonstrates that the consent-decree driven organizational and operational changes around crisis intervention are taking root.”
“We are seeing that the new policies and training implemented as part of the reform process are keeping both officers and the community safe,” the statement said.
Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole commended officers for using relatively little force while investigating these cases.
According to the department, only 10 of the total incidents resulted in the use of “Type 2 force” — the level that “causes or is reasonably expected to cause physical injury greater than transitory pain but less than great or substantial bodily harm.”
It can include the use of pepper spray and a beanbag shotgun, and deployment of a police dog.
Tracking criminal contacts with people in crisis or suffering from mental-health issues is part of the department’s new crisis-intervention program.
The program was approved by a federal judge in February 2014 as part of the federal oversight.
It is designed to bolster community safety and provide officers with guidance and training, all while treating people in crisis respectfully.
Central components of the program are having officers connect people with treatment services and teaching them ways to de-escalate situations without risking their own safety or engaging in unnecessary force.
In the first three-month tracking period, police say they referred 1,594 cases to community mental-health service providers. Officers made 772 involuntary commitments to local hospitals.
“We’re doing far more work related to service than we are enforcement,” O’Toole said. “Policing goes way beyond law enforcement, this underscores that.”
Sgt. Dan Nelson, the department’s crisis-intervention program coordinator, said previously the department only tracked crisis calls related to a suicide or someone who was acting wildly irrational.
Now, he said, officers who believe they are contacting someone battling a type of mental illness or a personal crisis are asked to fill out the report with the suspect’s name, the sorts of behaviors they’re participating in, whether they’re threatening and details of the incident.
Also included is the type of crisis the person is having — drug-induced, mental-illness-induced or some type of medical issue.
Nelson said all the department’s 1,250 officers have participated in an eight-hour crisis-training course, and 40 percent of their patrol division has attended a more intensive 40-hour training session.
Seattle police are dispatched to roughly 860,000 emergency calls of all types each year, Nelson said.
“We’re one of the first departments in the country that are tracking this data,” Nelson said of the mental-health contacts. “It puts a scope on how many interactions we have with people in crisis.”
O’Toole said the department has been contacted by federal, state and local police counterparts across the nation for help creating similar tracking methods inside their departments.
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, in a statement, said he was proud Seattle officers were “leading the way” in its efforts.
“Police officers are often the first to encounter those needing addiction or mental-health services,” he said. “We must continue to invest in the best training for our officers, as well as improved access to human services, to further improve outcomes for the most vulnerable.”
Hayes, the U.S. attorney, said in her statement: “The SPD data demonstrates officers are applying best practices from across the nation and that is making a difference. Trained and empowered police officers using discretion and de-escalation has led to positive results, including a growing number of referrals for mental health and substance abuse services.”