Seattle’s Community Assisted Response and Engagement (CARE) team launched in October of 2023 as a pseudo policing alternative composed of six social workers who respond to low-priority calls alongside police and firefighters. At launch, Mayor Bruce Harrell said the City’s 911 center would dispatch the crews to nonviolent, non-emergent, and non-medical emergency calls that required no law enforcement action, such as “person down” or “welfare/wellness check” calls. 

Cities across the country initiated similar programs in recent years, with some mayors referring to them as “force-multipliers” because they’re supposed to allow cops to focus on higher-priority emergency calls. The CARE team should act as that force multiplier for the Seattle Police Department (SPD), but Harrell and the previous city council caved to police union demands to hobble Seattle’s version of the program, which has drastically limited the ability of the city’s “third public safety department” to actually help reduce the workload of officers. 

About 100 days after the beginning of the program, I rode along with the CARE team to check out the scene. After five hours and two hot chocolates, the team received zero calls for service. One of the CARE team members said the total lack of calls was uncommon but also not an anomaly. Another member, Abdillahi Mohamed, put a positive spin on the situation, saying it meant no one needed the team’s help that day.

But as I rode along in the back of the team’s car, I heard several calls that sounded like the kind that could have used the team’s help that day. On one call, dispatchers flagged a man pooping on a property, and yet no one rang for the CARE team. Another call came in about a man in crisis who needed a place to sit with someone. Dispatch asked for any free crisis units, but none could respond, and nobody asked the CARE team to. A third call over the radio described someone rolling in the roadway, and yet dispatch didn’t tap our crew. 

I asked Seattle CARE Department Acting Chief Amy Smith about that last call, and she acknowledged that it sounded like a call CARE was meant to handle.

“What that tells me is we’re 100 days in, but there’s still not all the way buy-in,” Smith said. 

Beyond buy-in, the very structure of the program places significant limitations on how the CARE team can act. Late last year, the City and the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) entered into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to allow the City to launch the dual dispatch pilot in the first place. According to the agreement, SPD officers maintain ultimate authority on any call they share with another responder, and they can tell CARE responders not to respond. The MOU also specifies that dispatching CARE team members cannot change the number of officers dispatched to calls, so dispatch still needs to send the same number of cops to calls even when CARE responds as well. In this way, the MOU effectively allowed the union to neutralize the program’s primary objective while strengthening the department’s ability to negotiate for higher salaries, better benefits, and additional goodies during ongoing contract negotiations with the City. 

According to the CARE team members I spoke with on the ride-along, cops have occasionally allowed them to respond to calls without officers, for instance in situations involving someone the cops have dealt with in the past. At the same time, Mohamed mentioned that when many Priority 1 calls come in and officers can’t respond to clear a scene, CARE team members can be left with very little to do. Plus the team’s basically supposed to stay within the downtown core, though occasionally they’ll respond to a call in Capitol Hill or just outside their zone.

Since the program began, the CARE team has responded to more than 300 calls, including 14 calls the week of my ride-along. Eleven of the calls the team received that week came at the request of an SPD officer, not through dispatch sending the CARE team out alongside SPD. In those cases, officers called CARE to help people in need of shelter or to connect a person to detox and substance abuse treatment. In one case, the CARE team spoke to a person dealing with suicidal ideation for more than two hours after officers left and offered to refer the person to a mental health provider. The person turned them down but asked if they could call the CARE team if they changed their mind. The CARE team said no, because the City has not set up a way for people to request help directly from CARE.

In the three calls that CARE responded to that week that did not come through a police officer, one happened when the CARE team was already at a scene, and the call was just someone telling them to provide NARCAN to a person who was overdosing. Another call came from King County detox, who called just to update the team on a case involving someone CARE had referred for treatment. The third call was a woman who stopped the CARE team as they walked around to ask for help finding her bus stop. The CARE team believed the woman to be in crisis, and so they walked her to her stop.

Despite this slow, plodding start, Smith envisions expanding the CARE team to 24 people who can respond to calls independently from SPD. On every call, her responders mark whether they needed police officers to return to the scene. So far, the CARE team only called officers back a handful of times–not because they felt unsafe, but because they needed police to refer someone to the Crisis Solution Center, which is a place where police and other first responders can take people in crisis. However, the CARE team members cannot refer people to the center and need an officer to do so. Smith said she’s working on figuring out how to change that.

The data should back up what people have said here in Seattle and in other cities—that not all 911 calls require police. However, it's doubtful whether Smith’s data has any weight when it comes to convincing SPOG to allow the City to stand up real police alternatives.

Right now, Smith acknowledges the City is watching whether this program can exist without pissing off either the police or fire union. Police union president Mike Solan has expressed a distaste for police alternatives, appearing to view them as an insult to SPD officers. The City’s contract with SPOG prevents it from shifting any work from sworn-officers to civilians without negotiations. Given how much leverage the City has already given away in the MOU, and given the repeated emphasis from the Mayor and the council on hiring more police officers as the only solution to public safety concerns, it seems unlikely that they'll push hard to take lower-priority work off the plates of officers who constantly complain about having all this low-priority work on their plates. 

The other lingering question is whether the City plans to actually fund the program long-term. Right now, the City has allocated $2.3 million to the program, plus some money from participatory budgeting, where the public asked for $2 million to put toward a people-not-police crisis response team. The federal government also awarded the program some money, Smith said, though that’s still a little hazy. Still, one-time funds and no promise for ongoing investment at scale makes her wary of fully staffing her program.

The MOU calls CARE a pilot program, but Smith never does the same except in the sense that she’s still trying to design the final model. However, she knows people sometimes doubt whether her program can survive. At the Mayor’s public safety forum earlier this month, Harrell put Smith up next to SPD Chief of Police Adrian Diaz and Seattle Fire Chief Harold Scoggins and called her the chief of a third department. But the City has made it clear through its budget that it does not view CARE as a third public safety department when it comes to investment. The City spends more than half a billion combined to fund the departments that Diaz and Scoggins run compared to Smith’s measly $4.3 million. 

But who knows? Smith seems pretty determined and has a deep sense of urgency, and she says she’s felt nothing but support from the Mayor and the city council. The City knows it needs a third department, and it also knows that law enforcement cannot handle all the social problems facing Seattle, Smith argued. Even some cops tell Smith they want a third kind of response, she said. 

“What I’m trying to do is gather enough evidence to make a strong case that we have different types of professionals who are needed to respond to 911 calls,” Smith said. 

But Smith doesn’t need to convince the people of Seattle and King County, who have been telling pollsters they want alternatives since the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, and who literally gave her that $2 million to start her program. It seems as if she only needs to convince the officials the city elects in low-turnout, odd-year elections. 

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify the CARE teams budget.