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A lighted message on a Seattle wall at night says “Defund the police, invest in community”
Calls for defunding the Seattle Police Department have grown louder during recent protests.
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How Seattle Restaurants Are Finding Alternative Solutions to Calling the Cops

An effort to “defund the police” could start by using other ways to de-escalate conflict when there’s a disturbance

Last June, a few months after the Filipino coffee shop Hood Famous Cafe and Bar opened in the Chinatown-International District, co-owners Chera Amlag and Geo Quibuyen wanted to have a frank discussion with their staff about handling potential conflicts. In that neighborhood and others downtown, people experiencing housing insecurity or going through a mental health crisis often look to restaurants for brief shelter or a place to get some food or a cup of coffee. Too often, if there’s a disturbance with diners or someone is visibly intoxicated, the default reaction may be to call the police.

But Hood Famous looked to find a different solution that would still keep its customers and employees safe. One with more empathy and understanding for a neighborhood where raids on homeless encampments are common, and policing can be antagonistic.

“We wanted to be really thoughtful and responsible as business owners in a district that we love,” Amlag tells Eater Seattle. “Is there something that we can do — as citizens, as individuals, as people who care about our community — prior to calling the cops?”

So Hood Famous brought in social worker Aleks Martin — who has over 10 years of experience with drug and alcohol counseling, and over 20 years in the health and social service field — to talk about best practices when it comes to de-escalating conflict. Part of the training involves confronting one’s own racial and social biases (in the latter case, not assuming someone is homeless if they are “homeless presenting,” for instance). But one key part involves becoming familiar with resources that don’t involve cops.

“I’m not asking baristas to be crisis responders,” Martin tells Eater Seattle. “But they can be a bridge to connect people to services that they need. You can call on behavioral health specialists, essentially people like me — like a social worker or a mental health therapist, or an addictions counselor, or a case manager — who are trained to talk with people, not to talk at people, rather than the automatic response of pulling a gun.”

Amlag and Martin mention Crisis Connections as a possible alternative to 911. The King County-based organization’s umbrella includes 211, which is a resource hub for those who need help with housing issues, financial needs, legal aid, or finding a nearby food bank. Crisis Connections also has a program called Crisis Line (1-866-4CRISIS): a 24/7 call center that can help connect people with social workers, case managers, counselors, or other experts in situations that are urgent, but non life-threatening.

Both resources are meant for individuals to call the numbers themselves, but staff members at a restaurant or small business can also call on behalf of someone who may be in need of assistance. “With Crisis Line, either we talk to the person in crisis directly, or we can transfer them to the right help that they need,” says Lauren Rigert, senior director of development and community relations for Crisis Connections.

Another resource that already exists as part King County’s crisis response system is the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC), which has a program called the Crisis Solutions Center. First responders can call on the DESC’s 24/7 mobile team, trained in de-escalation methods, for support when people are having behavioral health crises (there’s also a physical building with 46 beds for temporary shelter, should anyone need it).

According to the official website, the Crisis Solutions Center’s goal “is to divert individuals impacted by mental illness and substance abuse from jails and hospitals by providing a more appropriate therapeutic alternative.” Right now, this is a resource only for first responders, not the public to use for referrals, but that could perhaps change, if the organization expands, says executive director Daniel Malone. “Right now, we just don’t have the capacity to handle that kind of volume of calls,” he says.

Seattle also recently relaunched the Community Service Officers program (CSO), a group of civilian employees who help residents and businesses involved in non-criminal calls navigate services, engage with communities and neighborhoods, and support programming for at-risk youth. The first iteration of the program, which is part of the Seattle Police Department (SPD), ended in 2004 due to budget constraints, but was rebooted after a $2 million investment. The program is still small, though, and their role within the SPD remains unclear.

As has been highlighted by the recent protests, there is an over-reliance on policing to solve many non life-threatening matters, across the U.S., not just in Seattle — and orgs like DESC, CSO, and Crisis Connections can play a large role in finding better solutions. Restaurants may be able to not only train staff on seeking out those resources, but also raise awareness for them among the general population.

In that vein, Belltown bar Neon Boots recently posted on Instagram a list of “Seattle Area Alternatives to Calling 911.” Among the organizations are domestic violence and sexual assault hotlines, youth resources, substance abuse organizations, and many other numbers in a printable PDF for those who want to display them at their place of business.

Neon Boots co-owner Jeremy Alexander says, in his experience, de-escalation tactics have always been preferable to calling the cops. “Even if we are asking someone to leave, we still respect their boundaries of personal space and their right to not be physically touched or threatened,” he says. “With this in mind, it is hard to justify a call to the police, as the possibility of physical force is one of their main coercive tactics.”

Alexander says the Neon Boots list is an “ongoing project that we hope to improve on as we learn and gain insight from the community,” spurred by the hope that the city will reallocate funds from policing to other resources. “I’ve found that the police often create the illusion of public safety, of order, while the community is largely responsible for itself. We talk to our neighbors, we keep each other informed. When you know the people living on the streets you tend to treat each other with more respect.”

Awareness about these solutions may be in short supply, though. Several of the bars and restaurants Eater Seattle contacted about this story weren’t familiar with 211 or Crisis Connections, although many said that they would use such resources if the situation called for them. A few near Pioneer Square and the International District mentioned Downtown Ambassadors as a helpful alternative. It has an outreach team that aims to meet unsheltered individuals where they are, and serves an area of twelve neighborhoods.

In general, from the restaurateurs’ perspective, calling the cops when there’s been a clear threat hasn’t resulted in swift action, anyway. Alexander says that at another bar where he used to work, it once took the cops three hours to show up to a scene where someone crashed a stolen vehicle into the patio and then brandished a knife at customers. “In my experience, the police do not ever respond quickly, and are generally dismissive when they do arrive.”

Another obstacle to expanding alternatives to 911 is the much-discussed Seattle city budget. Mayor Jenny Durkan recently proposed cutting $20 million from the SPD for the last six months of 2020. But that’s well below the 50 percent that area protesters have recently demanded, and even the number some of the city’s own council members, including Teresa Mosqueda, have mentioned.

The city has a major budget shortfall due to COVID-19, in the range of $400 million this year. And it’s unclear whether any money taken from the SPD or anywhere else would go to fund resources like Crisis Connections. Relatively speaking, the money used to keep such organizations going (a combination of government funding and philanthropic donations) is paltry compared to other areas, including the SPD. The annual budget for Crisis Connections in 2019, for instance, was $7.5 million, less than one percent of what the SPD’s budget was this year. DESC’s Crisis Solutions Center has an operating budget of $9 million.

City council members are still keeping options on the table as pressure mounts to defund the police department and boost other alternatives. And, as anybody familiar with Seattle politics knows, that means... more discussions.

“We’re anticipating hearing about what community members are asking for Wednesday in committee,” a rep for Mosqueda tells Eater Seattle.

In the meantime, it could be up to restaurants and bars to deliver more of a grassroots effort to make non-emergency policing increasingly obsolete. “Hopefully, giving our teams proper training on de-escalating situations, cops won’t have to be called, and we’re not putting that person’s life in danger by potentially being killed by a police officer or being incarcerated,” says Jeanie Chunn, group director of the coalition Seattle Restaurants United.

“I’ve seen the cops called on people struggling with mental health issues, and then it escalates,” says Eric Fisher, co-owner of the restaurant Copal in Pioneer Square. “It seems so simple. Just call a different number, and someone without a gun will show up to help.”

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