Seattle police officers team with mental health professionals to help those in crisis

SEATTLE -- “I tried to buy some crack and he gave me ‘bunk,’” a woman told Seattle police Sgt. Dan Nelson.

She was hysterical.

“Oh, that’s terrible,” Sgt. Nelson said, trying to calm her down.

“And he won’t give me back my money,” said the woman, referring to the dealer who sold her bad drugs. “(Inaudible) I tried to kill myself last night and I want to kill myself again.”

“Take a deep breath,” Sgt. Nelson told the women, who is frequently contacted by officers in Seattle’s Pioneer Square.

While the woman has admitted to trying to buy crack cocaine, officers still consider her a person in crisis. Training dictates they work to get her services, rather than take her to jail.

“We need to make sure that our folks who have significant mental health issues, chemical dependency issues, are having a positive contact with the police. We’re making sure that they have the same access to police services as everyone else,” said Sgt. Nelson, the Seattle Police Department’s crisis intervention coordinator.

In recent days, the department has heralded what it considers to be an improvement in how officers are dealing with those in crisis – many of whom are mentally ill, drug dependent, or suicidal.

According to data released by the department last week, Seattle police officers rarely used force against people in crisis between May 15, 2015, and Aug. 15, 2015.

The data showed that officers used force against a person in crisis in fewer than 2% of interactions — 49 out of 2,464 during the three-month time period. None of the contacts resulted in the use of deadly force.

The numbers are significant in that the Department of Justice criticized Seattle police in 2011 for having a “pattern or practice” of using excessive force, or resorting to force too quickly, often against people in crisis.

"The data released by SPD is very encouraging and demonstrates that the consent decree driven organizational and operational changes around crisis intervention are taking root,” U.S. Attorney Annette Hayes wrote in a statement. “We are seeing that the new policies and training implemented as part of the reform process are keeping both officers and the community safe. We ask a lot of officers in these very challenging situations. As we saw in the past, many interactions with people in crisis resulted in force being used, and that clearly is changing.”

According to the data, officers arrested only 8% of those in crisis, opting instead to offer them emergency services. Of all contacts during the three-month period included in the report, 1,594 individuals were referred to community services, 272 were voluntary committed to local hospitals, and 772 were involuntary committed.

Chief O’Toole called the numbers “remarkable.”

“They underscore the fact that policing is a service that goes well beyond law enforcement,” she said in a statement. “I’m incredibly proud of SPD officers for handling these complicated situations so effectively and with such minimal force.”

The data suggests that Seattle police officers are on track to make 10,000 contacts with people in crisis over the next year – a number that illustrates just how important it is that all officers have now been trained in crisis intervention.

The department gave Q13 FOX a first-hand look at how officers on the street deal with those in crisis on a daily basis.

On a recent afternoon, Sgt. Nelson, who helps lead the department’s crisis response efforts, joined two other officers in attempting to get housing for an elderly homeless woman in crisis.

“Hi, how are you?” Sgt. Nelson asked the woman is a soft voice as he leaned in toward her.

“I’m not too good,” she said.

The woman, who is blind, hard of hearing, and wheelchair-bound, is often a target on the streets, Sgt. Nelson said.

“She has kind of a whole host of issues and she gets victimized a lot,” he said. “So today, she was in front of the shelter and just sort of screaming for help, so one of the staffers called 911.”

Two officers responded to the scene. One told Sgt. Nelson when he arrived that the woman has refused to accept help in the past.

“It’s tricky because I hate seeing her out on the street,” said the officer.

The officers gave the woman a banana and orange juice as they weighed their options.

Within minutes, the Mobile Crisis Team arrived on scene. The team is made up of two mental health clinicians who police call in to help identify the specific needs of those in crisis.

While the group spoke to the woman, a man from the nearby Union Gospel Mission approached with good news.

“We do have a placement for her today,” he said, offering up a bed for the woman.

“Oh, you do?” Sgt. Nelson responded. “Perfect.”

The woman was quick to accept the offer.

“She was very willing to get into services, get into a shelter,” Sgt. Nelson said. “So it was very fortunate that the UGM worker came up and talked with her and we were able to put all that stuff together.”

“This really is a community-based problem,” he said of those in crisis. “This is not a police problem. This is not a fire problem or a hospital problem. This is us as a community coming together, coming up with a solution so we can have a better response for these people.”