Taking a man in crisis to the hospital.
Taking a man in crisis to the hospital. Ansel Herz

On a clear day in April, seven Seattle police officers approached a man in a frenzy at Victor Steinbrueck Park. The man was crouched on all fours, like a tiger, draped in a mylar blanket. As they got close, he made agonized and incoherent noises.

One bystander, Charles Tunstall, told me the man had been in the park for the past few weeks. He was behaving in increasingly bizarre ways. Tunstall said he didn't want to approach and try to help because the man, who went by "Lucifer," seemed aggressive and "potentially dangerous." (Both men—the man acting bizarrely and Tunstall—were black.)

The officers closed in, bent down, and began to restrain the man. Then health workers approached. Without incident, the police and health workers loaded him on to a stretcher. An ambulance took him to the hospital. Watch:

"I think the Seattle police department did a remarkable job at just being still and not moving too fast with this guy," Tunstall said afterward. The two officers who first arrived on the scene had kept their distance.

"Thank God Seattle police were here and responded," he said.

This is a prime example of what Seattle police consider a successful "crisis intervention." In a new department report, police say they're excelling at dealing with these kinds of incidents without causing any injury, using force in under two percent of over 9,000 crisis incidents in the city between 2014 to 2015.

This is what a lot of police work looks like now. People call 911 when they see an individual acting out in ways that make them afraid or worried. Often, mental health, drug, or alcohol-related symptoms are at play. Police show up.

The Stranger's Eli Sanders has written a whole book tracing the violence that stems from cuts to mental health budgets. As he recounted in the Washington Post:

Between 2009 and 2012, more than $4.3 billion was cut from state mental-health budgets around the country in the wake of the Great Recession. In Washington state... the 2009 budgeting cycle alone saw more than $23 million cut from mental-health programs. In the years before that cut, the state held a D grade for its mental-health services from the National Alliance on Mental Illness. So did the United States as a whole.

The man in the tree—a man who climbed to the top of a downtown tree in March—is perhaps the most infamous example. His mother said he cycled in and out of jail and she was unable to get him medical treatment for paranoid schizophrenia.

Five years ago, the Department of Justice found that Seattle police were engaged in a pattern of excessive force. Seventy percent of that force was used against people in crisis.

Officers now report using "verbalization tactics to control situations" in more than 90 percent of the incidents. All SPD officers undergo crisis intervention training. (KING 5 has a firsthand look at the training here.)

"These low numbers are solid evidence that Seattle police officers are embracing and putting in practice their expanded de-escalation and crisis intervention training," the department says.

Examples abound. In June, an intoxicated man outside The Stranger's office was wandering in and out of the traffic. Three officers arrived on the scene, talked to him in soothing tones, and gently detained him until an ambulance arrived. He was taken straight to the hospital and not charged with anything.

This exactly the approach many want the police to take: Don't be trigger-happy. Don't be quick to use Tasers, pepper-spray, or handcuffs. Avoid force as much as possible. Be patient. Be big-hearted. If someone is dangerous, don't respond in kind. Don't be afraid. De-escalate. Police the city with the goal of rehabilitating and rescuing those who've lost their way, not punishing or brutalizing them. Recognize the person is a human being.

From SPD's report, here's how an officer described another crisis intervention:

The victim called 911 to advise that he was on a ledge under the 12 Av S bridge and make suicidal threats. Officers arrived and found the victim perched on the trellis below the bridge at a dangerous height. Ofc. [name redacted] started a dialogue with the victim who stated that he wanted to die. He was extremely intoxicated. He pulled out a butane canister and a torch lighter then threatened to light himself on re. Ofc. [name redacted] was able to talk the victim into climbing down. Once the victim was safely off the trellis and detained he expressed his gratitude to the officers with a song. He was transported to Swedish Medical Center for mental health treatment.

And here's a somewhat harrowing account from a North Seattle resident:

I would like to call out what I witnessed on 4 April, approximately 3 PM, at a residence in North Seattle for exemplary policing. An elderly citizen had befriended a homeless person and allowed that man to stay in her garage for a period of several days. When asked to leave, he fought back with belligerence.

Unbeknownst to my neighbor, age 70, he had already begun to alter the interior of her garage and fully intended an indefinite stay. Things came to an abrupt ending when after numerous calls to the SPD to remove this person from the property, a final group of three officers showed up at the residence to clear up the situation. Although the man was belligerent and made threatening gestures, at no time did the officers respond with physical force. They walked that man off the property after spending 2 hours taking him down into submission... No ensuing lawsuits and I’m sure after witnessing that man’s increasing hostile behavior towards the neighbor, the officers prevented a tragedy from happening to this overly kind woman.

If accurate, the numbers are deeply encouraging. As is the department's rhetoric: Concluding its report, SPD says it is committed to acting compassionately toward community members who, "often through no fault of their own, find themselves in crisis situations."

The SPD notes that it cannot "legislate the many systemic and societal changes" needed to address the "underlying causes of crisis."

Take the hint, state and federal lawmakers.

All that said, this is just one measure of progress at the SPD. On others—namely, trust in the force among African-Americans—the data show that things have gotten worse. This is surely related to bellicose, racially inflammatory remarks from the city's police union, its attacks on President Obama and Office of Professional Accountability Director Pierce Murphy, and long-stalled changes to SPD's accountability structure.

The biggest test of whether the department has meaningfully reformed will be whether it embraces a radically strengthened civilian oversight system, presuming that system actually gets put in place.

"Changing the fundamental culture of Seattle policing is a massive undertaking," said City Attorney Pete Holmes last week during a hearing with the federal judge overseeing reforms. "And much work remains."