100 Officers Trained to Implement Anti-Camping Rules as Navigation Team Expands to 7-Day Schedule

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office has confirmed that the city has trained about 100 members of the Seattle Police Department’s Community Policing Team (CPT) and bicycle patrol officers on how to implement and enforce the rules against unauthorized “camping” in public spaces, such as sidewalks, parks, and publicly owned property. The city recently expanded the Navigation Team to include two new field coordinators overseeing encampment removals and two new outreach workers, who will do outreach work previously performed by the nonprofit REACH, which is no longer participating in encampment removals.

“The CPT and bike officers have been trained to implement the existing [Multi Departmental Administrative Rules], which lay out when and how encampments can be removed), the encampment rules, and how to connect with the Nav Team,” Durkan spokesman Mark Prentice says. “People can remain in the public right of way but belongings that are obstructing… ‘pedestrian or transportation purposes of public rights-of-way’ are not allowed, which is why a Navigation Team member will be available to offer storage and/or services. … This additional effort by CPT and bike officers does not impact or change the MDAR or the City’s compliance with these rules.”

Perhaps unintentionally, the Navigation Team no longer creates a list of “weekly unauthorized encampment removals”; instead, the most recent version of this document refers to these removals as “relocations.”

Under Durkan, as I reported last month, the Navigation Team has shifted its emphasis and now focuses on removing tents and belongings that constitute an “obstruction” under the city’s rules. Once an encampment is deemed an “obstruction,” the Navigation Team can remove it without notifying residents or offering them shelter or services. Although, in practice, officers often do tell residents who happen to be around during these unannounced removals about available shelter beds, outreach workers and unsheltered people have told me that they’re less likely to trust uniformed police officers than social service workers who show up between removals and get to know them outside the charged environment of a sweep.

Empowering another 100 or so police officers to enforce the rules against camping will undoubtedly expand the city’s ability to remove unauthorized encampments without notice, but it’s unclear what the long game is here, or if there is one.

The original goal of the Navigation Team, when it was created as part of the city’s response to the homelessness emergency back in 2017, was to “work… with unsheltered people who have urgent and acute unmet needs,” by building  relationships with people living outdoors and convincing them to come inside (ideally, to new low-barrier, 24/7 shelters with case management and services). Today, the team still offers referrals to shelter and services, but much of their work involves removing encampments, cleaning up sites, and watching people move back in over a matter of days or weeks—a tedious process of, yes, sweeping people from one place into another in a seemingly endless cycle. (Perhaps unintentionally, the Navigation Team no longer creates a list of “weekly unauthorized encampment removals”; instead, the most recent version of this document refers to these removals as “relocations.”)

Since 2017, the Navigation Team has nearly doubled in size, from 22 to 38 members. In that time, the number of contracted outreach workers has stayed the same, while the number of police, management, and support staff has grown dramatically. (Currently, in addition to 13 police officers, the team includes three data analysts, one team lead, one encampment response manager, one outreach supervisor, one communications manager, an administrative specialist, and an operations manager). Empowering another 100 or so police officers to enforce the rules against camping will undoubtedly expand the city’s ability to remove unauthorized encampments without notice, but it’s unclear what the long game is here, or if there is one. The city has added some new shelter beds (including 160 mats in the lobby of city hall, which are accessible for just 8 hours a night and don’t include showers, food, or services), but nowhere near enough to meet the need. Last year, according to the latest Point In Time Count of people living unsheltered in King County, the number of people living in tents rose from 1,034 to 1,162 even as the count of people living unsheltered shrunk.

I scrambled back up the path, stumbling a bit on my way back to the accessible, level, and totally empty park. I can’t imagine whose “pedestrian and transportation purposes” anyone living in those brambles could possibly be obstructing.

This week (over the newly expanded seven-day Navigation Team schedule), 13 encampments are on the list for “relocation.” All but one have been deemed “obstructions” exempt from the notice and outreach requirements.

Over the weekend, I visited a couple of encampments. One had just been visited by the Navigation Team, which hauled away a dump truck full of refuse, including soiled clothing, food wrappers, and large items dumped on the site by people from outside the camp. At the base of the hillside where people had set up their tents, there were still piles of loose trash and scattered needles, along with several full purple garbage bags provided through a pilot city trash pickup program.

The second encampment was one that’s scheduled for removal as an “obstruction” next week. The site was in a lightly forested area along Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., on the edge of an underused park that offers stunning views of downtown Seattle. I looked for the “large amounts of garbage, debris, and human waste” that the Navigation Team said were present at the site. It wasn’t easy to find signs of human habitation—from the park, the only way to access the place where people were living was by scrambling down a steep dirt hillside, or by bushwhacking through brambles and weeds to find a series of primitive trails. Eventually, I saw a beach umbrella, a mattress pad, and a few small piles of trash (but no human waste) that hinted that the area might be inhabited. I scrambled back up the path, stumbling a bit on my way back to the accessible, level, and totally empty park. I can’t imagine whose “pedestrian and transportation purposes” anyone living in those brambles could possibly be obstructing.

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Morning Crank: Reminiscences

File:Seattle Streetcar 301 leaving Pacific Place Station.jpg

Streetcar image by Steve Morgan.

1. Earlier this month, 100 representatives from Seattle neighborhood groups, downtown businesses, and advocacy groups—including the interim director of the Transportation Choices Coalition and the head of the Compass Housing Alliance—wrote a letter to Mayor Jenny Durkan urging her to move forward with the delayed, over-budget downtown streetcar line, which would connect the two existing streetcars (which go from Chinatown to First Hill and from Westlake to South Lake Union) via a “Center City Connector” running on First Avenue downtown. Durkan pressed pause on the project in March,  directing the city to do its own investigation, and hired a consultant to do an outside review of the $200 million project, setting a self-imposed deadline of June 19 that came and went without a report from the consultant. (According to the Seattle Times, the results of the internal review are expected to be released on Friday).

The letter, which urges Durkan to think of all the small minority-and family-owned businesses that would benefit from the streetcar, is in many ways reminiscent of the public pressure that came to bear on Durkan in two other recent debates: The head tax (a $250-per-employee tax on about 500 high-grossing businesses) and the appointment of a new police chief. In both cases, Durkan took a controversial position, then changed her mind. With the head tax, she opposed the version the city council initially proposed, then reversed course to support it after ostensibly getting Amazon on board, then flipped again to oppose it after a coalition of businesses and developers created a campaign to defeat it at the polls. In the case of the police chief, Durkan initially eliminated interim Chief Carmen Best from the running, citing the recommendation of her appointed search committee, whose chairman, Tim Burgess, said the group agreed “it was best at this point for an outsider to be brought in as the next chief.” Yesterday, in a stunning turnaround, Durkan appointed Best, saying by way of explanation that the thing that had changed between Best’s elimination from the running and her appointment as chief was that “she got on the list of three finalists.”

So will Durkan flip-flop on the streetcar as well—approving the over-budget link between two slow, underutilized lines in response to pressure from community groups that argue the streetcar is the best way to provide “much-needed transit access and enhanced mobility” to people traveling through downtown? Look back in this space after Friday, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if the streetcar turns out to be Durkan’s third 180 in as many months.

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2. Late Monday night, the Bellevue City Council approved a process for siting permanent shelters in the city, which is a first step toward the lengthy process of approving a permanent shelter in Bellevue—a process that could still take another several years. Currently, the only shelters in Bellevue are temporary; the land use code amendment adopted Monday creates a land use code designation for a permanent shelter. The arguments for and against the shelter were reminiscent of the debate over shelter in Seattle, writ small—what’s at stake in Bellevue are 100 potential permanent shelter beds, compared to the more than 3,100 shelter beds that currently exist in Seattle.

Among other amendments, the council narrowly rejected a proposal to require a 1,000-foot buffer between the shelter and any residential areas or K-12 schools (the amendment would have also allowed shelters to be located up to one mile away from a transit stop, rather than within a half-mile, which would effectively limit shelters to industrial areas inaccessible by transit. The council also considered, and rejected, the idea of making homeless shelters a temporary, rather than a permanent, use.

The city of Bellevue has been embroiled in debate for years over a proposed men’s shelter in the Eastgate neighborhood, near Bellevue college and a Sound Transit park-and-ride. According to the most recent one-night count of King County’s homeless population, there were at least 393 people living unsheltered in East King County.

Former city council member Kevin Wallace and recently elected council member Jared Nieuwenhaus have suggested that the shelter could be located in an industrial area near Sound Transit’s light rail station in the Bel-Red neighborhood, which would require Sound Transit to create new plans incorporating a shelter into its light rail station. (When he was on the council, Wallace, a developer, frequently tried to delay or alter Sound Transit’s plans to build light rail to Bellevue.)

Council member Jennifer Robertson, an opponent of the changes adopted Monday, claimed she had seen crime statistics that showed that the majority (55 percent) of the property crime in the city of Portland was committed by the 3 percent of its population who are homeless, along with 39 percent of the violent crime. I was unable to track down this statistic; Portland’s crime dashboard, like Seattle’s, does not track crime rates based on a perpetrator’s housing situation.

Deputy mayor Lynnne Robinson, who voted for the land use amendments, said she had never seen a process drag out this long. “We made a commitment to site a permanent men’s shelter, and there [has been] more public process  in this [land use code amendment] than I’ve ever seen in anything else in my five years on the council that we’ve permitted or created a permitting process for,” Robinson said.

The first temporary winter shelter in Bellevue opened in 2008; the city first committed to opening a permanent shelter for men in 2012.

Bomb Scare that Nearly Shut Down Central Library Was “Realistic” Army Exercise

On Saturday, April 14, staffers at the downtown Seattle library discovered two alarming objects on its third-floor shelves: Two books, including South of Broad, a family drama by Pat Conroy, that had been hollowed out and filled with what appeared to library staffers to be two primitive homemade bombs, according to an internal library email about the incident.

Each of the books contained batteries, wires, and computer chips. According to the police report, obtained through a public disclosure request, staffers considered the objects to be “potential explosive device[s].”

The staffers on duty that Saturday morning, according to multiple accounts of the incident, then called 911, stationed security guards on several floors, and prepared to evacuate the entire 363,000-square-foot building and its approximately 3,500 occupants in response to the apparent potential bomb—a complicated process in any building, made more so by the fact that the downtown library, with its meandering “book spiral” and hard-to-find emergency stairs, is not designed for easy evacuation.

As security staffers prepared to pull the fire alarm, a Seattle Police Department officer arrived on the scene. Although accounts differ on the precise details of what happened next, library staffers were quickly told to call off the evacuation, and the responding police officer, along with a man in street clothes (identified after the fact, according to the police report, as U.S. Army Sgt. Maj. Mike Merzke) and two other plainclothes officers left the building, carrying the mysterious devices with them.

Merzke, who works at the U.S. Army’s Special Operations Command (USASOC) in Fort Bragg, NC, did not return a call to his direct line seeking comment. According to USASOC public affairs director Robert Bockholt, the exercise was part of a larger series of “realistic military training” exercises that took place in locations across the city between April 8 and April 22. “Seattle, like other cities, provide an excellent training area for the challenges of an urban environment and afford our Soldiers the opportunity to refine our techniques needed for overseas operational missions,” Lt. Col. Bockholt said in an email. “The Seattle Police Department approved and coordinated with USASOC from October of 2017 through April of 2018, including two in-person meetings in Seattle prior to training commencement.”

According to Bockholt, “The training and evaluation device[s]”—the books—”included an embedded recorder [and] allowed military training staff the ability to evaluate the students[‘] training.” Bockholt did not provide additional information about the other training exercises it conducted in Seattle in April.

Library spokeswoman Andra Addison says the library was not informed in advance about the exercise.

In an email to library staffers a week after the near-evacuation, city librarian Marcellus Turner wrote that he had talked to SPD at length about “why we aren’t a good place to hold” military exercises, and that  “Chief [Carmen] Best and her staff at the police department …apologized immediately” for the incident and assured him that “[t]he Seattle Public Library (and our neighborhood libraries) will not be an exercise site again.”

“I have been assured that the exercise itself never placed the library or any of our staff or public in danger or harm of any sort and the devices that were found had no ability to harm or physically disrupt our space or use of the building,” Turner continued. “The exercise was a constitutionally-protected and non-criminal exercise meaning having a conversation in a public space and possessing no weapons in the course of the exercise was legal.  The exercise itself was described as a meeting between several people in a public space and the device that was found was a recorder which was being used to record the discussion between these people.  In truth, an exercise of the agency / agents, not the Library.”

The Seattle Police Department declined to comment on its role in the incident. Bockholt said that the Army’s policy “with regards to informing local governments when conducting these kind of exercises in public buildings is to coordinate and follow local law enforcement guidance. In this case, Seattle Police Department evaluated the training and determined their supervision of the training was sufficient.”

Library spokeswoman Addison says library staffers “did a great job of responding calmly and appropriately” when they found the devices.

The C Is for Crank Interviews: Teresa Mosqueda

As the lobbyist for the Washington State Labor Council, the campaign chairwoman for Raise Up Washington (which ran last year’s successful minimum-wage initiative), and legislative director for the Children’s Alliance, City Council Position 8 candidate Teresa Mosqueda has credentials in Olympia a mile long. Most of the causes she has championed involve historically marginalized or disempowered groups, particularly women and children; this year, for example, she worked behind the scenes to pass a paid family leave law that’s the most generous in the nation. Her work as a labor lobbyist, however, has led her opponent Jon Grant to criticize her as a pawn of “Big Labor,” a term that some on the socialist end of Seattle’s political spectrum consider synonymous with Big Business. Mosqueda has endorsements from every Seattle labor group and the support of a political action committee, Working Families for Teresa, that is backed by the grocery workers’ union (UFCW 21), the home health care workers’ union (SEIU 775), the Teamsters, and the AFL-CIO.

I sat down with Mosqueda at her office at WSLC headquarters on South Jackson Street.

The C Is for Crank [ECB]: If you win, the council will have a six-woman majority for the first time since the 1990s. Do you think a majority-female council will emphasize different issues or produce different policy results than the majority-male councils we’ve had for the vast majority of Seattle’s history?

Teresa Mosqueda [TM]: I hope so. I think part of the lived experience that I’m going to be bringing to this seat is one of creating greater economic stability for working families and women. Women are part of the workforce now. We do not have affordable child care. We do not have affordable family leave yet. Although Seattle has made some good strides to push the state in the right direction, [the new statewide family leave plan is] not going to start coming onto the books until 2019, 2020. And, frankly as women, we are often left out of conversations about what retirement security looks like. Because we have to step out of the workforce so many times [to do unpaid work as mothers and caregivers], because we tend to get tracked into lower-paying jobs, our retirement security also suffers when we don’t have people proactively thinking about how to create equity.

One of the things I want to do is help prevent folks from getting retaliated against for speaking about their pay on the job. Right now, there are zero protections. It says on the books that you have protection from retaliation, but the reality is, talking about your pay at work gets people fired, it gets them demoted, it gets their hours cut. So we need to make that a protection. Second, I’m also very interested in looking at the data in terms of [job] tracking. Let’s take an organization like Safeway, for example, or Whole Foods. If you look at who’s in floral versus who’s in meat-cutting, it’s women in floral and men in meat-cutting, and meat-cutting pays significantly more than floral. And you can see that people are tracked into certain jobs in various industries based on their gender, and I want to make sure that is something that we look at and do an analysis of and seeing how we can prevent that. And then, lastly, I do think that it’s important that we ask companies to display their pay, to give more folks transparency in the workplace.

ECB: You identified child care as an economic issue that falls largely on women. What’s your plan to provide child care for women and families?

TM: The principles are pretty simple. One: We’ve said that nobody should spend more than 9.5 percent of their income on health care. I want to apply that same principle to child care. Seattle, as you know, is the most expensive city in the country right now for a parent to have child care. Right now, it costs more to pay for child care for a year than it does to go to the University of Washington for a year. So there are a few things I would like to do. Number one is creating a sliding scale subsidy, especially for those on the bottom levels of the income spectrum. Number two is to really encourage or try to facilitate people going into the early learning profession, by working with our local colleges to make sure that we’re getting more folks into child care and early learning.

One way to do that is to actually pay them better. One idea I have is to actually subsidize or enhance the pay rate that child care providers receive in our city. I know everyone’s got their eyes on the [Families and Education] levy right now, but I do think there is a direct tie-in [between child care and education]. I also think we should work with the state on the square footage limits that we have on child care. Right now, an in-home child care provider has to have 35 square feet per child inside, and I think it’s 65 square feet per child outside. What home can you buy right now where, if you wanted to have a dozen kids and make it a sustaining business, that you could actually have that amount of square footage? I also think there’s a lot the city could do in terms of zoning and incentives for child care throughout the city.

 

“I’ve seen the Freedom Foundation use very similar tactics that I’m hearing, unfortunately, from some [on the left], saying that labor is not representative. I think it’s extremely dangerous for us to be using right-wing rhetoric when it comes to electing local progressive candidates.”

 

ECB: Your opponent keeps suggesting that you are a tool of “Big Labor,” while he’s the true progressive in the race. Should voters be concerned about the fact that labor groups are spending tens of thousands of dollars on independent expenditures to help get you elected?

TM: People in the labor movement elect their leaders. Those in the labor movement decide through a democratic process who to endorse. It’s workers who’ve endorsed me. Every labor union has endorsed me. The workers, faith communities, organizations from communities of color, environmentalists, health care advocates are behind me. So I say that it’s a false narrative. I’ve seen the Freedom Foundation [an anti-union advocacy group] use very similar tactics that I’m hearing, unfortunately, from some [on the left], saying that labor is not representative. I think it’s extremely dangerous for us to be using right-wing rhetoric when it comes to electing local progressive candidates. I think this is exactly what the right wing wants us to do—to fight against each other, fight over the scraps and to pull our community apart. I’ve seen that language be used in the halls of  Olympia and across our country, where labor is being demonized, and I think now is the time for us to find the commonality between movements and find common interest in fighting the -isms, whether it’s sexism, classism, racism, and uniting against the forces that are trying to divide us.

I entered this race when I was 36. I’m now 37. I am a Latina woman who’s a renter in Seattle. I am a progressive advocate who has proven credentials that I brought to the table, fighting for health care for all kids, including undocumented kiddos, standing up for the rights of all workers, fighting for retirement security and affordable health care for kiddos—the issues that I brought to this race stand on their own.

ECB: Would you revisit any aspect of the city’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, and can you address Grant’s proposal to require developers to make 25 percent of all new housing affordable to low-income people?

TM: I’ll start with the 25 percent affordability suggestion. I’ve looked into this in depth, and what we saw in San Francisco, which passed an initiative saying they wanted a 25 percent requirement for all new buildings, is that it basically brought development almost to a halt during one of the biggest economic booms in history. Now it’s back with their board of supervisors. They’re trying to make a decision about what is the right number across the city, and they’re looking at what we did in Seattle [where the mandatory housing affordability proposal calls for different density increases] zone by zone. I’m not interested in grinding us to a halt. I’m interested in actually creating the housing that we need right now.

“The two-thirds of our city that is zoned for single family use has got to be reevaluated. We cannot create the affordable housing that we need for the folks who are living here, working here, retiring here, and those who are coming here, if we do not go back and add cottages, duplexes, triplexes, and affordable units.”

 

If there was something that I was going to push for on city council, especially with a new mayor and a new city council, it would be to say, did we lowball it [on affordable housing requirements] before? Twenty-five percent has obviously proven too much of a requirement to actually incentivize building, but instead of looking at [a] 2 to 11 [percent affordability requirement], is there a range that would allow us to move forward in this economic boom and get the affordable housing that we need without driving us back to either the conference room table or into court?

What I’ve been talking about is looking at every developable parcel of land that the city, county, and state owns, and that Sound Transit owns, and turning that into affordable housing options across the income spectrum— working with community land trusts, working with nonprofit housing developers, creating cohousing, coops, and subsidized housing models.

And in addition to that, the two-thirds of our city that is zoned for single family use has got to be reevaluated. We cannot create the affordable housing that we need for the folks who are living here, working here, retiring here, and those who are coming here, if we do not go back and add cottages, duplexes, triplexes, and affordable units for folks who probably rent but would like to buy one day. We have to be creative. We have to think out outside of the box. I don’t know about you, but I think a lot of your readers are tired of people who run for office who make these grand promises and then don’t deliver. What I’m talking about is getting in to office and then delivering the affordable housing that we need across the income spectrum. So it’s not going to be a one-sentence bumper sticker solution, it’s going to be a multifaceted approach.

ECB: The city’s Pathways Home strategy for addressing homelessness is based on a report that explicitly decouples homelessness and housing affordability, and concludes that people may just have to move outside the city or county to avoid being homeless. Do you agree with that strategy, and would you change anything about the city’s current approach to homelessness?

TM: I see them as interconnected. We have a crisis in the city both in terms of the lack of affordable housing and in terms of the number of folks who are living unsheltered on our streets. So I think that we need to take  a comprehensive approach and overhaul how we’re addressing the homelessness crisis. Number one, we have to stop the sweeps. It is retraumatizing people. It is not creating equitable solutions for folks who have already been failed by the system so many times. Getting moved from corner to corner is not a way to make sure they feel safe, and it is not a way to make sure they can access the services they need. We have to treat this as the health issue that it is.

 

“We are going to politicize the process and polarize the process, and it will not result in an actual [police] contract. The Freedom Foundation wants open collective bargaining  because they know it will result in stagnation and finger pointing.”

 

I’ve been talking about building the shelters that we need, building the permanent supportive housing that they need, and getting folks inside navigation centers [low-barrier shelters]. We obviously have to work with the community so people know where they’re being placed and why they’re being placed there, but they have to be placed throughout the city so that they’re in places where people can actually access them. It does us no good to place a navigation center ten miles away from where somebody can actually walk to where the services are needed. But in addition to that, making sure that we have actual inpatient treatment services in Seattle is one big priority that I’d like to address with the county. We do not have inpatient substance abuse treatment in Seattle that is sufficient. Folks end up going to Harborview and they’re let go 12 hours later. What they can do at Harborview is stabilize people. They can’t give them the case management and the substance abuse counseling and the long-term care that they need to be able to actually get sober. They should not be acting as our primary care providers throughout our city.

ECB: You’ve said that, unlike your opponent, you don’t want to open the police union negotiations to the public. Why not, and what would you do to increase transparency in police contract negotiations?

TM: I have constantly said what we need in this city is to rebuild trust. We need to make sure that people are not fearful when they call the cops  because they’re having a mental health crisis or because they are fearful that somebody broke into their home. And without a contract, I think a lot of people are concerned that we’re not going to get that trust. A contract can help us to that, but we’re not going to get a contract if you open up negotiations, like the Koch Foundation and the Freedom Foundation have called for. Because what that will inevitably create is folks sitting around a conference room table grandstanding. We are going to politicize the process and polarize the process, and it will not result in an actual contract. The Freedom Foundation wants open collective bargaining  because they know it will result in stagnation and finger pointing.

What I would commit to is saying, here are the things that I would want to see as part of a collective bargaining process: Be transparent with the public about how we’re going to hold folks accountable, how we’re going to create trust, and then be honest about what actually happens post-negotiations. The other thing I’ve said is, in addition to what the [Community Police Commission] has called for, which is the inspector general being in the room, the Office of Police Accountability being in the room, and CPC being in the room, I want there to actually be a community member at the table.

ECB: Are you talking about this community member being an observer or an active partner in contract negotiations?

TM: An active partner. I would like to see somebody sit in for the duration of the negotiations and be an actual part of the negotiations. Obviously, there’s things that come with that we need to be confidential and we need to be very respectful of the negotiating process, but I think we could have one or two community members sitting at the table bargaining in good faith. I think it can help us get to a base of trust.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue doing interviews like this one, which take an average of about 8-10 hours from start to finish. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers like you. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Universal Naloxone? Experts Say It’s Not that Simple.

TORONTO_PUBLIC_HEALTH

Toronto Public Health

Naloxone, the overdose-reversal drug that can bring unconscious opiate addicts back from the brink of death in moments, has been widely heralded as a miracle drug, one that can bring overdose victims back from the dead and that’s credited with saving seven lives since Seattle Police Department bike patrol officers started carrying naloxone nasal spray earlier this year. Daniel Malone, head of the Downtown Emergency Service Center, told me he was “stunned” when he learned that Seattle firefighters, who are all trained as EMTs, don’t carry naloxone; DESC itself has used the drug to reverse about a dozen overdoses since a new state law allowing agencies to get prescriptions for naloxone nasal spray went into effect last year.

Opiates slow down the respiratory system, causing a user to breathe more slowly; they kill when the respiratory system slows down too much and a person nods out, then stops breathing. Naloxone, also known by the brand name Narcan, works by stymieing the impact of heroin on opiate receptors in a person’s brain, allowing a person having an overdse to start breathing on their own.  Since SPD distributed Narcan to 60 bike officers this spring, they’ve reversed seven overdoses with the drug, celebrating each reversal as a “save.”

It’s indisputable that Narcan works. What remains in dispute is whether buying and widely distributing the drug among all first responders, including the entire police, is the best use of limited resources and  political capital, and whether Narcan actually saves as many lives as the Seattle Police Department, under intense pressure to do something to address the heroin epidemic in Seattle, has claimed.

Seattle Fire Department medical Dr. Michael Sayer sighs with exasperation when I ask him why firefighters don’t carry Narcan nasal spray. “Frankly, Narcan doesn’t really save lives,” Sayer says. “To the best of my knowledge, we have had zero cases where someone died because they had an overdose and the EMTs didn’t have naloxone.” That isn’t because Fire Department EMTs do nothing, he says; rather, it’s because EMTs get overdose victims breathing through other means, either by rescue breathing (perhaps better known as mouth-to-mouth resuscitation) or by giving the person oxygen; once they’ve started breathing again, Sayer says, the EMT can start administering a low dose of naloxone through an IV–enough to get the person breathing on their own, but not enough to send them into acute heroin withdrawal. 

“There’s different ways to do a medical intervention; naloxone isn’t the only way,” says Dr. Caleb Banta-Green, a member of the county’s Opiate Addiction Task Force and a UW addiction researcher who’s studying the results of the SPD pilot project. Sitting in his paper-strewn office a few blocks from the UW campus, Banta-Green showed me several different Narcan systems, including two kinds of nasal spray and an injection kit like the one used by SFD. In his observation of fire department medics, Banta-Green says, he saw that “they didn’t just slam [overdose victims] with a bunch of naloxone; they were very careful about how they did it, and they also monitored them really carefully and provided other medical support” to make sure they didn’t immediately go back into an overdose after the drug wore off.

Using Narcan judiciously has another side benefit, Banta-Green and Sayers say; it gives responders a better shot at getting a user to the hospital and potentially connecting him or her with services like treatment and medication.

“If we’re waking up people and we’re putting some fraction of them into withdrawal and then we’re leaving them there, I don’t feel like that’s really solving their problem,” Sayer says. 

Banta-Green is blunt about the shortcomings of an approach that starts and ends with overdose reversal. “Great—so you’ve reversed an overdose. You’ve just bought them 90 minutes. Then what? You still have an opiate-addicted person who’s at continuing risk for overdose.” Waving a bottle of the one-step nasal spray, he continues, “It’s really easy for me to give you this and you go reverse an overdose and [say] we’re good. It’s a lot harder to say to someone, ‘I hear you’re opiate-addicted. Would you like some bupenorphine?” (Bupenorphrine, in combination with naloxone, is sold as the highly regulated addiction maintenance medication suboxone).

“‘Yes, I’d like some bupenorphine,'” Banta-Green continues. “Okay, we need to find you insurance and a medical provider and a pharmacy and figure out a way to keep you on this for the next 20 years. I acknowledge that’s a much harder problem, but that’s the long-term solution.”

Banta-Green says police officers tend to be “stunned” when he tells them naloxone “may or may not be the best intervention,” that the evidence to prove it works better than other interventions just isn’t there yet. Lisa Daugaard, another heroin task force member and director of the Public Defender Association, recalls a conference in Washington, D.C. at which Banta-Green, “Mr. Empirical,” responded to police departments bragging about their number of “saves”—OD reversals that departments count as saved lives—by telling them, “‘You have no idea whether those people would have died. Those aren’t saves—compared to what? Maybe that’s not the most effective thing and maybe most of those people wouldn’t have died if you hadn’t administered naloxone.’ And people were like, ‘Shut the [heck] up, because I don’t want to hear that.'”

Daugaard says that compared to the fire department, which doesn’t have a history of enforcing the punitive war on drugs, SPD may find it “hard to bring a healthy skepticism to bear on specific strategies.  Replacing the instant fix of an arrest with the instant fix of a nasal spray has an appeal that harder, deeper solutions lack.

“This is not to be critical of programs in which officers carry naloxone–I’m not clear what the opportunity costs are,” Daugaard continues. “But I do appreciate first responders who set aside how good it makes them feel to ‘save’ someone and ask harder questions about what is most effective.”

With the jury still out on whether naloxone is a good investment for police in Seattle, everyone I talked to agrees on two types of places where having the spray on hand is a good idea: In the homes of opiate users, and in rural areas, where it may take half an hour for medics to respond to 911.

Banta-Green says his primary concern is choosing the best tools for combating opiate overdose and addiction while people are still paying attention to the “opiate epidemic”—a window that may already be closing. “I’ve worked in this area for 20 years, and it’s so rare that you get to actually talk about addiction or overdose that you want to make sure you have the most impactful way to do it, and that may not be police carrying naloxone. It might be telling people about the good Samaritan laws,” which ensure that people won’t be arrested for drug possession if they report an overdose. “Naloxone has really taken up the vast majority of the attention, and the problem has been that it can deprioritize or even remove attention and funding from other solutions, like syringe exchanges,” Banta-Green says.

In reporting this story, I also talked to one person who is an unequivocal advocate of naloxone distribution, and for very personal reasons: Penny Legate, founder of the Marah Project and the mother of Marah Williams, who died in 2002 at just 19 after fighting heroin addiction for seven years.

Legate says that even if naloxone isn’t a panacea, the risks of not having it on hand outweigh the possibility that overdose victims won’t seek long-term help. “There’s no down side to administering naloxone,” Legate says. “If a person is in a heroin overdose and you have precious minutes to revive them, I don’t know why anyone would object to a police officer or a bystander or anybody administering naloxone. It’s a matter of minutes to return oxygen to the brain.  Are you just going to stand there and say, ‘This person’s not going to get help, we’ve seen it before,’ or ‘Geez, heroin withdrawal is really tough,’ or ‘Let’s just sit here and wait for the medics to show’?”

“The hope,” Legate says, “is that they will allow themselves to be transferred to Harborview, where there are social services available, and that through the process they can be convinced to get help.” But even if many don’t, “is that any reason not to give [the drug] to somebody who isn’t breathing?”