The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Seattle is upending everything we think about how cops do their job

Seattle Police Officer Matt Chase talks to a woman sitting under a blanket on April 7. (AP/Ted S. Warren)
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Capt. Deanna Nollette of the Seattle Police Department didn't think an officer's duty was to give lawbreakers a pass. "We took this job because we believe in creating order. We want to hold people accountable," said Nollette, who said she had grown up with strict discipline in a Catholic military family.

So she was skeptical when she was told to oversee a new program allowing police to take people arrested for drug and other minor offenses to meetings with case workers instead of jail. She didn't want to be in command of "another hug-a-thug program," Nollette said.

The basic idea behind the initiative -- that counseling can be more effective than incarceration in converting drug addicts from criminals into responsible citizens -- isn't new. Yet in one respect, it's revolutionary. Seattle is asking line officers to think about their work differently.

Unlike a typical drug court (which Seattle also has), the program makes the police responsible for decisions about cases, taking advantage of officers' knowledge of the streets. 

Often, they already know all the details of an offender's biography. They know why an inveterate dealer is in the drug trade, and they might even know whether he has the capacity to change.

On the other hand, few cops like thinking of themselves as emergency drug counselors. As some see it, their job is enforcing the law and punishing those who break it.

When a Seattle cop refers suspects to the program, though, they aren't even charged. Instead, they receive therapy, along with housing and bus tickets if they need financial help. The assistance is unconditional. Offenders don't lose it if they wind up back in handcuffs.

"It's an incredibly thoughtful approach they’re taking," said Jim Bueermann, president of the Police Foundation in Washington, D.C., a research organization and advocate of new approaches to policing. "This represents a really fundamental change in the way police departments view their role in helping to solve really pressing social problems."

Only a few dozen officers and about 250 offenders are participating in Seattle's Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program. Still, it appears to be working -- not just in that it's reducing the number of crimes committed, but in that officers on the beat are beginning to see their jobs in a new way.

The program "forced me to redefine what it was to deliver public safety," Nollette said, who, four years after the start of the program, is talking about her work with law enforcement officers from around the country at a conference at the White House on Thursday. "Now, I think I have a much more holistic view."

At first, the distrust was mutual. "I thought it was a program for snitches," said Johnny Bousquet, a music producer suffering from addiction and mental illness who entered the program last year after selling four crack rocks to a plainclothes officer.

Bousquet, 38, says he's been arrested 40 times, though not once in the past 12 months. "I don't want to be high," he said. "I want to be functional."

Albany is preparing to set up a similar program, and Santa Fe started its own version last year. It remains to be seen whether those jurisdictions can match Seattle's results.

"Seattle has a really good reputation nationwide as a good police department," the Police Foundation's Bueermann said. "I think that if they're successful in this, there's a high likelihood that other police departments will replicate this."

Whether other departments succeed depends on their officers, and on how they see themselves.

As the country reconsiders years of tough-on-crime laws, American law enforcement officers are wrestling with difficult questions about their work, said Bueermann, a former police chief in Redlands, Calif. As he put it, "What is the fundamental purpose of policing?"

Bueermann said that some police officers might resist the program, reluctant to give up on the idea of punishing wrongdoers. Yet he says that's a task best left to judges and juries.

In Seattle's system, prosecutors reserve the power to file charges if an offender isn't making progress in the program. Police must make a call about the best way to prevent crime, not about whether a given person deserves punishment.

"Cops don’t like hearing this, but in that capacity, they are in fact, social workers," he said. "That's what the paycheck is for."

Some officers might be persuaded by the data, which suggests that Seattle's program has reduced crime. An independent evaluation by researchers at the University of Washington found that participants in Seattle's program were 58 percent less likely to be arrested and 39 percent less likely to be charged with a felony over the long term.

Police booked participants in jail 1.4 fewer times a year, resulting in 39 fewer days in jail annually per person. And they were 87 percent less likely to go to prison.

"We were really surprised to see the clarity of the findings," said Susan Collins, a psychologist and one of the researchers involved in the evaluation.

Collins noted several limitations to the study. They weren't able to randomly create two groups of offenders and assign one group to the program, which would reduce the likelihood of some hidden bias in the study. Instead, they assembled a group of offenders outside the program with broadly similar characteristics to those who were participating for purposes of comparison.

Another potential advantage of Seattle's model is that by diverting offenders before they even spend a night in jail, the city may save a lot of money.

The jails and the courts save $8,000 on each participant over the course of a year, compared to a person going through the usual criminal justice system. The cost of the program has averaged $10,787 a year so far -- but now that the program is up and running, costs on a monthly basis have fallen sharply, and that figure includes some mental health services that will be paid for with federal dollars under the Affordable Care Act going forward.

There are other benefits, too, that aren't easy to quantify: former addicts commit fewer thefts and make fewer visits to the emergency room. Some are getting real jobs and paying taxes.

Collins and her colleagues are working on another report that will explore how the program affects' participants mental health and employment. They expect to release it this winter.