Seattle Police slow response times compounded by 911 call center's "customer service" problem

Seattle’s 911 call center is being dragged into the controversy of the police department's slow response times—but it's not a problem of their own making.

During a recent meeting of the Seattle City Council’s Public Safety Committee, council member Sara Nelson said the call center that handles police response has a "customer service problem."

"There is a customer service issue going on with the system right now with no communication, and that's why people are getting upset" said Nelson.

During the meeting, Senior Deputy Mayor Monisha Harrell admitted there are complaints.

The problem stems from the conversion of the call center from a Seattle Police-run operation to entirely new civilian department, now called the Community Safety and Communications Center.

Two years ago, during the height of the ‘Defund the Police’ movement, the City Council and then-Mayor Jenny Durkan agreed to remove control of the center to one devoid of police supervision, except it works directly with the police department nearly every second.

The center is now what the city likes to call the primary "public safety answering point."

When it was under SPD’s control with supervisors inside the center, call takers and dispatchers tended to provide more information to 911 callers about the status of a police response.

That doesn’t happen anymore with lower-priority calls, according to the center’s interim director, Chris Lombard.

"We take as much information as we can and the police department decides how to respond," said Lombard.

SPD has experienced slow response times in every precinct in the city. Interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz has repeatedly blamed the officers fleeing the department. Roughly 30% of sworn officers have left since January 2020, and the replacement rate hasn’t come close to matching the departure rate.

Report finds it takes Seattle police longer to respond to high-priority calls compared to previous years

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The same has depletion rate has hit the 911 center. Its staffing is 26% below what it’s budgeted for in 2022.

"Some of it were stresses carried over from the previous year with all the protests," said Lombard. "We were getting 911 calls from all over the world, people screaming at us, employees were being followed out of the building."

Before the center made the change over to civilian control, 911 callers could be told about the progress of a police response. SPD supervisors would see the progress of a call and sometimes let dispatchers tell callers the status.

Now, supervisors outside the call center—located in each police precinct—screen incoming calls and assess the priority and response time. The callers are often left in the dark.

"As far as being able to tell 911 callers, ‘Hey, you are going to get an officer in three minutes’—we have no idea on that determination," said Lombard.

Sometimes those lower-priority calls are designated for "Z-disposition," according to Lombard. It’s a call that receives no police response, but will be logged as received by police. The 911 caller may never know their call was label as a "Z" unless SPD calls the 911 caller back and lets them know. There is no requirement to do so.

READ MORE: Seattle police have "Z-protocol" for low-priority 911 calls

"That’s part of why I think we are frustrated by the ‘demand management’ approach that we are using," said Public Safety Committee chairperson and council member Lisa Herbold. "Because those decisions are already being made to not send police to respond to those lower-priority calls."

In every city’s charter, public safety is a top priority. It’s elected official’s job to keep that promise.

The city is evaluating alternatives to an armed uniformed police response to lower-priority calls but doesn’t have anything in place yet. In the meantime, Diaz has told the council for more than year he is putting as many uniformed officers into patrol as he can to bring down response times.

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While staffing is down at the 911 call center, Lombard said it’s not as much of an issue as it could be.

"Unless we have a fully-staffed police department to respond to those calls, the calls are just going to sit there and wait for an officer," he said.