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Monday, February 16, 2009

Goodbye, good luck, but not good riddance

I come not to bury Gil Kerlikowske, but to praise him.

As you have no doubt read by now, Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske has been tapped for a high level position in the Obama Administration.

One does not ordinarily associate progressive politics with mainstream law enforcement, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention some great, progressive work that the Seattle Police Department has done during Chief Kerlikowske's tenure.

(Disclaimer: I am a prosecutor and have worked with Chief Kerlikowske. That gives me an especially good opportunity to comment on his tenure, but I leave it to the reader to determine the extent to which that may impact my views here).

When I think about the legacy Chief Kerlikowske is leaving behind, the first thing that comes to mind is the Crisis Intervention Team, or CIT. It's a small, three person unit inside the Seattle Police Department (SPD).

It is one of the most respected CIT units in the country, and for good reason. It is a unit that has thrived during Chief Kerlikowske's time with SPD.

CIT is comprised of a sergeant and two officers who are specially trained in mental health issues and interacting with the transient, destitute, and often-chemically dependent severely mentally ill who live on the streets of Seattle.

"Interacting" in this context means recognizing the symptoms of severe mental illness and responding to the mentally ill in a caring, non-threatening manner.

This often involves getting them help from the civil mental health system rather than booking them into jail. The CIT officers know many of the mentally ill in the streets, and have developed a great instinct for telling the difference between someone who is dangerous and someone who needs a helping hand.

The CIT officers also participate as members of Seattle Municipal Court's Mental Health Court. They are the only CIT unit in the country that does this.

As an aside, Mental Health Courts are criminal courts that practice "therapeutic justice", which means their objective is to help mentally ill who are charged with crimes, ensuring that they receive housing and treatment rather than being thrown in jail and enduring further misery.

The CIT officers train other SPD officers in the same techniques.

So far, about two hundred SPD oficers have received specialized training, and there are plans to train even more.

Then there's the community prosecution project, also referred to as the Precinct Liaison program, which was designed to head off problems before they result in criminal charges. This idea was developed and launched jointly by the Seattle City Attorney's Office and the SPD.

How does it work?

A Seattle city prosecutor is stationed at each of the five SPD precincts. The prosecutors and the police work together and with the community as a whole to understand the communities' concerns, and to develop creative, proactive solutions that do not require traditional prosecution.

This is another of Seattle's cutting-edge services that is rarely mentioned.

Like any large, urban police force, SPD has its "issues". And like any chief of a large, urban police force, Chief Kerlikowske has his critics.

For example, he has been accused of being too lenient on officers who are subject to discipline by Seattle's Office of Public Accountability. But from the perspective of someone who lived and worked (and prosecuted) in Los Angeles, SPD is, by and large, an excellent and citizen-friendly force.

This post may not earn me many points with progressive activists fighting to make the Seattle more responsive to their concerns, but I think we have to recognize what is working at City Hall, not just what's broken.

Seattle has been lucky to have Gil Kerlikkowske as its Police Chief, and President Barack Obama will be luck to have Gil Kerlikowske as part of his administration.

Good luck, Chief - you will be missed.

Comments:

Blogger Dean Libey said...

An enlightening article. I can only hope that such an approach to the mentally ill will become wide spread. BTW, It is only their lack of an estate that keeps the courts (from declaring incapacitation) and lawyer/guardians disinterested.

February 23, 2009 6:01 AM  

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