Burien’s City Council gave the green light Monday night (July 19, 2021) to a three-pronged plan to bolster public safety – primarily in the city’s downtown core – for businesses and their patrons as well as those struggling with addiction, mental illness and homelessness.
“This proposal perfectly intertwines the needs expressed by many in our community,” Councilmember Kevin Schilling said after making a motion to implement the full proposal, which was seconded by Councilmember Krystal Marx.
“It’s also supported by literally every business in the downtown core.”
Schilling’s motion passed unanimously, with six council members voting in favor and one – Councilmember Sofia Aragon – absent and excused from the meeting.
The plan is to spend $90,000 to hire a social worker, $200,000 to hire a police officer to staff a downtown storefront resource center and $320,000 to create a community response team comprised of an EMT/firefighter and a mental health professional, also known as a designated crisis responder.
While EMS levy funds would cover the $160,000 cost to hire the EMT/firefighter, the remaining $450,000 cost would be paid for using either American Rescue Plan Act funding or proceeds from an anticipated refund on contracted police services with the King County Sheriff’s Office, which has been unable to fill some five officer positions in recent years, City Manager Brian Wilson said.
Wilson added that he doesn’t expect the council will need to allocate additional funding this year to pay for the plan, which could be fully implemented as soon as January 2022. Police Chief Ted Boe noted that Discover Burien would sponsor the downtown storefront, meaning the city would not need to pay rent.
Councilmember Cydney Moore questioned the need for a downtown storefront and for hiring a new police officer, saying she preferred Option 2, which included hiring a social worker and establishing a crisis response team but not establishing the police-staffed storefront.
“I think that the expense here is very high,” Moore said. “I think that if we have a crisis response team that is actually able to respond to calls, that frees up our officers to respond to violent or dangerous crime rather than chasing people around who are in the middle of a mental health crisis.”
During public comment, city council candidate Charles Schaefer, who is looking to unseat Mayor Jimmy Matta, said he prefers Option 2, as well.
“It moves us away from having police respond, especially when things are not criminal issues,” Schaefer said. “That doesn’t tend to solve problems, whereas if you have a social worker or another professional responding to these issues, hopefully you can get people some help and start to make progress.”
Police-staffed storefronts, like those operated by the King County Sheriff’s Office in White Center and Skyway, are physical manifestations of the community-policing model, Boe said.
“They keep police in neighborhoods, provide a place for community groups to meet and show commitment to the residents,” he said. “The result of these programs is both a real and a perceived increase in community safety.”
Given her perception that addiction and mental health treatment and counseling services are “incredibly limited,” Councilmember Nancy Tosta said she worries that those in need could still ultimately end up back on the streets without the services they need.”
“Having somebody who can develop those relationships and know people from the individual level is going to help us to unpack that box,” Boe said, noting that police typically don’t have time to assess and adequately address someone’s unique needs before moving on to the next call.
“A lot of times we don’t have the time or expertise to sit for several hours waiting for different services,” said Fire Chief Mike Marrs. “With this community response team, we’ll have dedicated people who can spend the time to really get at the very complex needs of people that we can see 75 times with 911 calls and never get to the heart of the issue.”
Colleen Brandt-Shluter, the city’s Human Services manager, echoed the fire chief, adding that one of the greatest gaps in service currently is the inability of existing service providers to confidently diagnose people in crisis on the street, leaving first responders to wait sometimes hours for King County’s crisis response team to arrive.
“If we can get our own DCR (designated crisis responder) who has a direct connection to the Crisis Solutions Center and can actually do some of that field work,” she said, “we have a much better chance of getting people help.”
Read our previous coverage on this issue here.