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Seattle mayor boosts budget for third public safety department

The Community Assisted Response and Engagement (CARE) department will send civilian responders to calls that do not warrant a police or fire response

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By Sarah Grace Taylor
The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell will allot $6 million in additional funding to his promised third public safety department, which is set to partially launch in October.

At a news conference Thursday, Harrell announced he will provide additional funding for the Community Assisted Response and Engagement department — a new branch of the city’s public safety response — along with the police and fire departments, which will ultimately house alternative and dual response options, adding civilian responders to certain emergency calls.

The additional funding brings the budget up to $26.5 million and adds 13 full-time employees to the 10 already hired.

“Our new CARE department will deliver on Seattle’s long-standing need for a public safety system with diverse emergency response options designed to meet community needs,” Harrell said Thursday.

The CARE department is designed to send civilian responders to certain emergency calls that do not warrant police or fire, or require someone in addition to those departments.

In the early days of his administration, Harrell committed to launching some form of a third public safety department, partly modeled after the one in Albuquerque, N.M., to launch by 2024.

According to the mayor’s office, the new department will have three divisions: emergency call takers and dispatchers; “community-focused public safety responders,” including those specializing in behavioral health; and “violence intervention specialists.”

After a slow rollout of details, Harrell announced last winter that a dual dispatch program approved by the City Council would serve as the pilot launch for the CARE department, housed in the Community Safety and Communications Center, which includes the city’s 911 dispatchers.

The CARE department will begin work sometime in October, with an initial focus on low-risk priority 3 and priority 4 calls, which include person-down situations and welfare checks. Ten initial hires have been made for the dual dispatch team, and training began this week. The new positions will be funded in Harrell’s proposed 2024 budget.

Harrell said there was no set timeline for the pilot program to end, but that the city will seek to scale up the CARE department using “evidence-based solutions” based on the progress of the dual dispatch team.

Leadership over the implementation of CARE has changed dramatically in the weeks leading up to the launch of the team, with Harrell’s niece and former Senior Deputy Mayor Monisha Harrell, who headed public safety projects, leaving the administration this summer and CSCC Director Rebecca Gonzales leaving her role overseeing the department this month.

Gonzales, who was appointed by Harrell to oversee the newly formed CSCC in January after nearly 30 years with the Seattle Fire Department, was recently moved back to SFD and replaced by Amy Smith, deputy director of the CSCC. Harrell said Thursday that Gonzales “was always going to go back to the fire department.”

“Rebecca was the interim. She will return back to the fire department as deputy chief and I tried — I hope I thanked her for laying the foundation for what we’re doing,” Harrell said.

Smith, Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz and Seattle Fire Chief Harold Scoggins will all report directly to Deputy Mayor Tim Burgess, who was promoted from his role as director of strategic initiatives after Monisha Harrell left.

The announcement is the first peek at Harrell’s second proposed budget, which will be presented to the City Council on Tuesday, launching a two-month amendment and approval process. It also comes the day after Harrell signed a controversial bill passed by the council this week, allowing the city attorney to prosecute public drug use and knowing possession as gross misdemeanors.

Harrell has committed to funding diversion programs to encourage treatment options rather than arrests or jail time for those in violation of the law. When asked how these priorities will be reflected in his upcoming budget, Harrell said he “wasn’t quite prepared” to answer that question.

A spokesperson added that “this administration is committed to diversion.”

Harrell also said the city’s 911 center is on track to be fully staffed by the end of the year, having already hired more than 45 new employees in 2023.

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