It’s well known that Seattle police are struggling to respond to 911 calls in a speedy manner. But the notion that “the cops aren’t coming” has become such a routine of city life that they’ve created a new way of tracking their nonresponsiveness.
It’s called the “Z protocol.”
I don’t know why they picked the letter “Z.” Maybe because it’s the last stop, the end of the road?
The new “Z-protocol criteria” for 911 calls were described at a recent Seattle City Council public safety meeting. Basically when you call 911, you are ranked as high priority for police response if there’s violence occurring, or if there’s an imminent threat of violence or property damage. Lower-priority calls are also dispatched, but if the police are too busy, these calls can be put into a triage queue for a supervisor to look at later.
A “supervisor will look at the notes on the call and make a decision whether the call will get a response,” a council analyst explained at the meeting. “Or whether the call will be cleared with what they call a ‘Z-disposition action.’ ”
Z-disposition, the analyst summarized, refers to “all calls that are essentially not answered by SPD due to a lack of resources.”
I know a guy who fell into “Z-protocol” territory recently. You probably know someone, too.
He’s a volunteer soccer coach, and two weeks ago during practice someone lifted some kids’ backpacks that contained four Seattle Schools-issued laptop computers and two cellphones.
As one does these days, he used “Find my iPhone” to track the devices, which he located at 22nd and Jackson Street, not far from the soccer field.
He drove over and there stood an unfortunately very large man with one kid’s backpack slung over his shoulder.
“I told my son on the drive over that I wouldn’t engage, because it wouldn’t be safe,” says Zach Fleet, the coach, and a Seattle attorney. “But then when I got there …”
Fleet jumped out of the car and asked for the backpack. Accompanied by a “burly” soccer dad, they pressured the man until he let the backpack slip to the sidewalk. Inside were the laptops but not the phones.
The man then got on a No. 14 bus, headed downtown. The cellphone tracker indicated the phones were now on the bus. Fleet — rashly, he admits — jumped on after him.
“I asked the bus driver if he could help and he said ‘No, you should call the police,’” Fleet says. “People on the bus were all saying ‘Just call the police, dude.’”
So after offering to buy the phones back for $50 — the man didn’t go for it — Fleet called 911.
“They said ‘Stop following him right now,’” Fleet says. “‘Wait there for an officer.’”
Now off the bus, at 12th and Jackson, Fleet watched the thief go and then waited. He says he waited for about half an hour. When no officer came, he went home, and three hours later a 911 dispatcher called him.
“They asked: ‘Are you still at 12th and Jackson?’ They were very apologetic and nice,” he says. “They just said they were not able to make it out. And that would pretty much be the end of it.”
Fleet told police that he was still tracking the cellphones, and at that moment they were in SeaTac near the last stop south on the light-rail system. He says he was told to give it up and file for insurance.
Because he wasn’t reporting a crime that had occurred in the past, but one in progress, Fleet says “I really did think they’d come.”
Back at City Hall, at the council meeting, council members talked about how the new Z-protocol criteria spare front-line dispatchers from having to tell agitated callers in the moment that the police aren’t coming (supervisors do that later). And also, that this lack of response will now get recorded in the data.
“In future briefings, we will hopefully be able to display a table that gives the number of Z-disposition calls, all calls essentially not answered by SPD,” the analyst said.
Now readers with strong memories may recall this once happened to me. My car was broken into and we tracked the thieves to a van near Green Lake. I couldn’t get police to come out either. In my case, the thieves turned out to be Washington’s most wanted car prowlers, suspected of smash-and-grabbing from more than 200 cars around the Seattle area. They went to prison or drug treatment after they were caught by Sammamish police.
That was eight years ago. The differences between then and now tell a story, not a good one, about our city.
Back then, the police seemed concerned that they hadn’t responded. An operations commander told me it was “indefensible” policing. The police chief ordered a review.
“We blew it,” the operations commander said in 2014. “We can’t tell you to go file an insurance claim when you’ve got criminal suspects sitting right in front of you. That’s us waving the white flag.”
Now, with police ranks depleted, and at least a portion of Seattle’s political class hostile to the idea of policing, they seem to be instituting white-flag waving as a regular part of the system.
The white flag is going to be displayed in a data table at future briefings.
After hearing about the Z protocol for nonresponse, and how response times have ballooned for both serious and petty crimes, one council member was reduced to pleading.
“For those officers listening in, please stay in Seattle,” said Councilmember Alex Pedersen during the hearing. “Please … we need you in Seattle to help bring these response times down.”
Obviously when the news of late is that even some sexual assaults aren’t getting investigated, it seems almost wrong to bother them about your lesser crime. It feels increasingly futile.
Whether intended or not, the implicit message of Z protocol seems like a dangerous one: Deal with it on your own.