I frequently see people in the neighborhood that are clearly in need of assistance, but calling the police feels like a disproportionate response. There is no crime occurring and no immediate threat is present. For example, a few mornings ago there was a man moving erratically and moaning in the crosswalk by QFC on Wallingford Ave. He was clearly in need of aid, and standing in the middle of Wallingford Ave in the dark wearing black clothes. Very little good was going to come from this situation without external intervention. I tried to talk with him and get him out of the street, but he was unresponsive.
911 had been my go to mechanism for engaging emergency city services. Knowing the history of the Seattle Police Department, I had a fairly high threshold for calling that number in most situations. The situation had to be fairly extreme for me to call 911.
The Stranger had a great story a few months ago that provided several other options for how to address these situations. It outlines several different options depending on your comfort level. In particular, it highlights some of the options within the Seattle Police Department. This quote stroke close to home for me:
When asked if it would be better to just kinda walk on by rather than intervene or call the cops, Mahoney [a social worker and program manager with the Seattle branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness] strongly disagreed. “While the ramifications of calling for police intervention absolutely differ from neighborhood to neighborhood, we at NAMI Seattle definitely do not believe that the only other alternative is to ‘just kinda walk on by’ someone who is in obvious pain, distress, or otherwise experiencing mental health symptoms.”
For the above situation near QFC, I followed the suggestion of calling 911 and requesting someone trained as a Crisis Intervention Team Member, and mentioning the mobile crisis team as a possible resource. I have called 911 a fair amount of times as I have been out walking the dog, and most of the conversations always go towards the risk of police response. Very early in the conversation with the 911 operator, I am asked if I see weapons or is the person aggressive. However, when I mentioned the Crisis Intervention Team Member, I did get a slightly different set of questions. Rather than risk to responders, the conversation was more focused on risk to the individual in need. I was asked questions about the danger faced by the individual, and had I tried to ask him to get out of the street. I did not stay for the whole interactions with the responding team, but from the 911 call it felt like a better experience than I have had in the past.
This is not going to solve the all the issues in the neighborhood, but it felt like a good start in improving communications within the community. In this one instance, the above suggestions allowed me to better communicate what I saw happening in the moment in a way the 911 operator could understand. In the past, I was not sure how to clearly communicate ” There is no imminent danger to the community, but this one person really needs some expert help.” So tip of the hat to the Stranger for the clear article on to relate just that sentiment.