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4 officers, 1 social worker, 9,200 crisis calls: Could a new app help Seattle?

Under new crisis intervention policies, Seattle Police Officer Louis Chan partners with Mariah Andrignis, a social worker.
KUOW Photo/Kara McDermott
Seattle Police Officer Louis Chan partners with Mariah Andrignis, a social worker from DESC who contracts with SPD to help with crisis response.

It’s 11 in the morning. Officer Louis Chan is scanning through the 911 calls that have come through, waiting to be handled. 

One call stands out: A patient with a history of attempted suicide didn’t show up for an appointment. The case manager was concerned and called 911.

Chan decides to check on the patient.  As he drives, social worker Mariah Andrignis is on her phone searching databases, including the Downtown Emergency Service Center, for any information about the patient.

Andrignis and Chan are part of Seattle Police’s Crisis Response Unit. Part of their job is to connect people with services, depending on the situation.

Chan say people in mental health crisis used to be sent to jail or the hospital, which wasn’t always the best long-term solution. Many ended up cycling through the system. 

“Our ultimate goal,” Chan says, “is to free up patrol officers so they can go to these 30-plus other 911 calls that aren’t crisis-related.”

Every hour of the day in Seattle, there’s a crisis happening – it could be someone acting erratically, threatening to harm themselves or the public. Often the first people to respond are the police.

The Crisis Response Unit takes the bulk of these calls. But there are only four officers and one mental health professional in that unit. Last year alone, there were more than 9,200 crisis incidents.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Social worker Mariah Andrignis looks up some information about a potentially suicidal man while on the way to a call. Her tools are simple: just a phone, a cheerful notepad, some pens and a pair of plastic gloves. She is able to access different databases for information than Officer Louis Chan, so the two pool resources as well as experience.", "fid": "130797", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201610/crisispolice-mariah.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Kara McDermott"}]]Andrignis is contracted to the Seattle Police from Downtown Emergency Service Center. She checks to see if there are any notes on a person while heading to a call.

“If it’s one of our clients, I can go in and say, ‘Oh look, Susie has had three run-ins with staff this week. Maybe we should call them and see what we have before we show up and talk,” Andrignis said.

Chan and Andrignis arrive at the patient’s apartment building. Before heading in, Chan turns on his body cam. Another officer joins them, per Seattle Police policy.

About 15 minutes later, they come out of the building. Andrignis said the patient’s fine.

“We gave him information on the Crisis Clinic, and he could talk to someone if he needed it,” she said. “He talked to his case manager just a few minutes ago, so he’s feeling safe, he’s feeling more stable.”

[asset-images[{"caption": "Social worker Mariah Andrignis and Seattle Police Officers Louis Chan and Douglas Beard regroup after visiting a man that was potentially suicidal. ", "fid": "130796", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201610/crisispolice-regroup.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Kara McDermott"}]]

These responses are what Chan and Andrignis specialize in, but there’s not enough of them to cover all the crisis calls in the city.

So Seattle Police has teamed up with app developers to come up with a program to help them interact with people in crisis. The app would help patrol officers respond to these calls when Chan's unit is tied up.

It would provide information and different response plans at their fingertips before they approach the person. It’s like a field guide for patrol officers when the crisis response unit isn’t able to take the call.

“Is this person a danger to anybody, what have they done in the past, when was their last interaction with the police, and what tools, tips or tricks that officers can use to better resolve whatever interaction they’re having,” Chan explains. “It’s getting everybody on the same page.”

The app would help in situations like the next call Chan takes – a  man in old downtown Ballard is waving metal objects and causing a disturbance. 

“This is an example of someone who’s in more acute crisis, where their behavior is potentially dangerous to the public or to themselves,” Chan said.

A patrol officer responding would be able to use the app to get information about the man and a response plan. This applies to people who are familiar to the police, like this man.

“We’ve been getting a bunch of reports about this person in the Ballard neighborhood, who has been, for lack of a better word, terrorizing the neighborhood,” Chan said.

When Chan and Andrignis arrive at the scene, the man is wrapping his head with a t-shirt. Chan gets out of the car and approaches him. Andrignis stays in the car as a safety precaution. Five other officers arrive, too. They stand back and keep an eye for safety issues as Chan talks to the man.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Seattle Police Officer Louis Chan, center, talks with a man in Ballard about his erratic and threatening behavior. Several police units responded to the scene to assist. Social worker Mariah Andrignis said Chan's calm demeanor and body language helps him approach and deescalate situations.The man ended up walking away from the encounter.", "fid": "130800", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201610/crisispolice-ballard_0.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Kara McDermott"}]]

From the car, Andrignis describes how Chan is trying to help the man calm down and listen.

“In a situation like this where there’s a lot of unknowns, he could be kind of erratic,” she said. “If you can be calm with the person, you stand a better chance of building a rapport.”

The man leaves. Chan said he asked what services he might need and offered to get the man help. But he declined.

Soon after the man left, someone in the neighborhood told the police the man assaulted him last month. Chan plans to look for the police report and see if any more action needs to be taken.

Andrignis said based on the man’s history, there are reasons for his behavior. But it doesn’t make it excusable, she said. “We do know he would benefit from getting medical and mental health providers.”

Currently more than 58 percent of officers have advanced training in crisis intervention. SPD says the app, scheduled for rollout later this month, would enhance their responses.

Year started with KUOW: 1994