Seattle police chief finalists open up in community Q&A

From 911 alternatives, gun violence, and the need for a culture change to increase officer morale, the three Seattle Police Chief finalists covered most of the city’s hot-button topics during a 90-minute live question-and-answer session on Thursday evening.

The three finalists are Assistant Tucson Police Chief Kevin Hall, Assistant Seattle Police Chief Eric Greening, and current Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz. Diaz has been leading SPD since former Chief Carmen Best left nearly two years ago.

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The panel based topics on more than 100 questions submitted by the community, whittled down to a half dozen issues.

All three finalists have roughly 30 years of experience. Diaz said his time leading SPD these past couple of years through the pandemic, the 2020 protests, and the historic loss of some 400 officers makes him the best choice for a permanent chief.

Greening pointed to his experience with a variety of SPD assignments as the reason he should get the job.

Hall believes his passion for reform makes him the right choice for a Seattle truly looking for a change.

Seattle Channel aired the Q&A live with moderator Brian Callahan posing questions to each finalist, tackled in individual 30-minute sessions.

The first topic was which 911 response alternatives the finalists would support.

All three candidates supported alternatives to emergency calls that don’t require a sworn officer to respond. Diaz pointed to a recent study that showed approximately 12-15% of calls could be handled with alternatives, ranging from responses involving social workers and cops to no law enforcement at all.

All three stressed the importance of those alternatives being evidence-based.

“I’ve actually been a supporter of a lot of alternatives to policing,” Diaz said. “Right off the bat, when we had a number of homicides in South Park, we started a collective impact initiative with the mayor’s office, called the South Park action agenda, that brought a lot of different social services to the community.”

Diaz cited the expansion of career opportunities, case management, and aggression replacement training as a positive investment to keep the city’s youth out of the criminal justice system.

“That all helps the police department. We had almost 11 years without a youth-related homicide in that community,” explained Diaz, who also pointed to the return of Community Service Officers and Crisis Intervention Teams – officers with embedded social workers.

Diaz also pointed to the work the department has been doing as part of a risk management demand project, looking at all calls for services and figuring out which responses are the most appropriate. That led to four potential alternatives: officer response, primary officer response with a community partner, a primary social service provider response with a secondary officer, and lastly, a social service provider with no officer.

“Whenever there is a shooting, say a youth-related shooting, you could have provided a youth or violence interrupter worker and credible messengers where people that have lived through these experiences can help reduce retaliatory shootings,” Diaz said. “Being able to engage them and have them involved in that call can reduce the number of calls we might have later on.”

Seattle isn’t the only city audibling to non-police responses for 911 dispatch calls. San Francisco, under Mayor London Breed, is pivoting to this idea as it helps address specific needs for those in crisis.

“Our police officers are not mental health professionals,” Breed wrote in a mayoral update.

This practice, known as “co-response,” has its roots in policing for nearly 20 years among certain East Coast states, including Rhode Island, whose police force often partners with mental health nonprofit agencies.

Tucson Assistant Chief Kevin Hall spoke from personal experience in addressing alternatives to uniformed response.

“I support any of the alternatives that have some sort of evidence-based, science-informed, data-driven foundation,” Hall said. “That can be tough in this space because they’re new, and there’s not a lot of evaluation.

“Paying attention to what works and what doesn’t, what causes harm with these types of programs is super important,” Hall continued. “Things along the lines of looking at different ways to have the officers respond to substance misuse, for example, pre-arrest deflection programs, where you’re offering or you’re giving the officers the opportunity to offer treatment instead of arrest and incarceration.”

He also said the city can implement an unarmed crisis clinician team, like they have in Tucson, to respond to certain mental health calls in lieu of police.

Hall said these clinicians could work out of the city’s 911 dispatch center, where they could help respond to and de-escalate callers.

Assistant Chief Greening pointed to programs closer to home.

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“I inherited the collaborative policing bureau,” Greening said. “Within the bureau, I lead the community service officers. Right now, we have about 20 of them. I would like to see the unit grow. That unit was around when I first came to DEP almost 30 years ago. They were a very helpful, very nice, alternative conduit for community outreach.”

On how the finalists would approach the rise in violence – specifically gun violence – there were similarities, with all expressing support for expanded community intervention and more “hot spot” policing as Mayor Bruce Harrell has already used in downtown Seattle and Chinatown-International District.

“My plan with my limited resources is a place-based approach. You concentrate on those areas,” Greening said. “The random patrolling, the 911 response, it’s not working.

“Going forward, we need to concentrate on prolific offenders,” Greening continued. “It’s a network of folks that we have to concentrate on … I would make sure I bring everybody to the table to try to mitigate the shots and also get the very violent felons off the street.”

Hall added that any violence interrupters or community intervention should be run by a different department or third party because “credibility erodes” if people are working for the police.

Diaz also said he would continue to advocate for further gun regulations, noting his past testimony to legislators about issues including ghost guns and storage requirements.

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