Seattle could soon defund a promising police alternative

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Without telling the public too much, an alternative police pilot program has been operating on the streets of Seattle for two years. Through a partnership with JustCARE, a local public safety company called We Deliver Care protects outreach workers caring for the homeless. They also provided de-escalation services to people in crisis, and they did it all without the intervention of a uniformed police officer.

Now, with JustCARE’s future in question due to uncertainty over how city leaders will find funding, this promising program could also be on the chopping block. With the city still struggling to fully staff the police department, letting We Deliver Care fall by the wayside would remove a one-size-fits-all solution to ensuring public safety in the absence of police.

Dom Davis created We Deliver Care with his co-founder, Stephenie Wheeler-Smith, during the protests surrounding the death of George Floyd in the summer of 2020. The two longtime community leaders took notice when Seattle Public Schools suspended his contract with the Seattle Police Department, and they feared that the SPD’s full funding would leave communities in South Seattle without anyone to provide public safety.

Although the city never really funded the SPD, the lack of another organization offering de-escalation services provided We Deliver Care with an immediate opportunity. That’s when JustCARE, a partnership between several organizations focused on reaching out to people living in encampments in Pioneer Square and the International District, reached out to Davis looking for alternative public safety solutions.

“It’s all in a sandwich”

In the two years We Deliver Care served on the ground with JustCARE, Davis says they’ve proven how to effectively deliver public safety without the need — and cost — of involving uniformed police. Instead, it trains its Community Safety Ambassadors to build relationships with the people they work with over a long period of outreach. Then, when someone has a mental health crisis or other conflict that their team needs to defuse, they leverage that relationship to meet the person’s needs while interrupting the disruptive behavior.

Davis modeled this formation on a recent late-night call in response to an incident at one of JustCARE’s hotel shelters. A resident had stolen a sandwich from the hotel lobby and then argued with hotel staff. The worker became concerned for her safety and locked herself in a bathroom before calling Davis for help. When he arrived, he immediately recognized the resident as someone he knew. This resident had illusions of being a Seahawks player, and he firmly believed that he needed to fuel up before heading to practice.

Instead of kicking him out of the hotel or slapping him in handcuffs for stealing the sandwich, Davis calmed him down by “balloon talking” with the resident. Once they steered the conversation away from the source of the conflict, Davis provided him with a gift card for food at the hotel and he paid for the man’s sandwich.

For Davis, this incident captures all the benefits of We Deliver Care’s non-custodial approach to public safety: the resident did not lose their home or face a criminal charge, the hotel was taken to safety and the city was saved thousands of dollars to house the person in jail and prosecute him.

The secret sauce

Many pilot projects struggle to expand their operations, especially when their success depends on exceptional individual talent. Given Davis’ deep personal involvement in the operations of We Deliver Care, replicating the kind of success he saw in that hotel lobby could be difficult, even if the program received enough funding to expand.

But Davis has no such doubts about the scalability of his operation. Since its inception, the organization has grown to employ 25 Community Safety Ambassadors and has also entered into a short-term contract to provide public safety for the Low Income Housing Institute. To support this growth, Davis leverages its extensive network of community connections to identify and recruit individuals with lived experience in the criminal justice system who want employment that allows them to give back to the community.

Before any of his recruits hit the field, Davis works his network to find out if they have a history of troubling interactions in the community — whether or not those incidents show up on a traditional criminal background check. . He then assesses each candidate while on the move during encampment outreach efforts to monitor their capacity for compassion when interacting with others. If they don’t pass Davis’ mood check, they don’t get the gig.

As the organization grew, Davis focused more on the hiring process than answering actual calls itself. Given that mass incarceration has created no shortage of people returning from jail or prison with the need for employment and the lived experience that Davis seeks, he seems confident in We Deliver Care’s ability to find quality recruits for the program.

Of course, you would expect the guy running an operation to be optimistic about its impact. But a holistic examination of JustCARE’s effect on the neighborhoods it serves shows Davis’ safety teams have made a measurable difference.

After the program’s first year of operation, researchers from the University of Washington conducted a study from JustCARE which included findings on the work We Deliver Care is doing with the organization. Their analysis showed a 39% reduction in 911 calls in the neighborhoods where they operate and a 12% reduction in 911 calls from hotels where the program provides shelter.

All the evidence points to Seattle having landed on a promising candidate to provide public safety without the danger and expense of relying too heavily on uniformed cops. The only question that remains is whether city leaders will find a way to keep JustCARE, and thus Davis’s We Deliver Care, sustainably funded. Current funding for the program will be expire at the end of this month, and the program will shut down unless the City finds $10 million a year to keep it running.

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