Without much notice to the public, a police alternative pilot program has been operating on Seattle’s streets for the last two years. Through a partnership with JustCARE, a local public safety firm called We Deliver Care has been protecting outreach workers who are serving people experiencing homelessness. They’ve also been providing de-escalation services for people in crisis, and they’ve been doing it all without the involvement of a uniformed cop.
Now, with JustCARE’s future in question due to uncertainty around how city leaders will find funding, this promising program could also be on the chopping block. With the City still struggling to fully staff the police department, letting We Deliver Care fall by the wayside would remove a ready-made solution for providing public safety in the absence of police.
Dom Davis created We Deliver Care with his co-founder, Stephenie Wheeler-Smith, during the protests surrounding George Floyd’s death in the summer of 2020. The two longtime community leaders took notice when Seattle Public Schools suspended its contract with the Seattle Police Department, and they worried that fully defunding SPD would leave communities in South Seattle without anyone to provide public safety.
While the City never really defunded SPD, the lack of any other organization offering de-escalation services provided We Deliver Care with an immediate opportunity. That's when JustCARE, a partnership between several organizations focused on outreach to people living in encampments in Pioneer Square and in the International District, reached out to Davis in search of alternative public safety responses.
“It’s all over a sandwich”
During the two years that We Deliver Care has served in the field with JustCARE, Davis says they’ve proven how to effectively ensure public safety without the need – and the cost – of involving uniformed police officers. Instead, he trains his Community Safety Ambassadors to build relationships with the people they’re working with over an extended period of outreach. Then, when someone has a mental health crisis or some other conflict that his team needs to de-escalate, they leverage that relationship to address the person’s needs while interrupting the disruptive behavior.
Davis modeled that training during a recent late-night call in response to an incident at one of JustCARE’s hotel shelters. A resident had stolen a sandwich from the hotel’s lobby and then gotten into a heated argument with the hotel staff. The worker became concerned for her safety and locked herself in a bathroom before calling Davis for help. When he arrived, he immediately recognized the resident as someone he knew. This resident struggled with delusions of being a Seahawks player, and he firmly believed he needed to fuel up before heading to practice.
Instead of ejecting him from the hotel or slapping him in handcuffs for stealing the sandwich, Davis calmed him down by “talking ball” with the resident. Once they’d moved the conversation away from the source of conflict, Davis provided him with a gift card for food at the hotel, and he paid for the man’s sandwich.
For Davis, this incident captures all the benefits of We Deliver Care’s non-carceral approach to public safety: The resident didn’t lose his housing or pick up a criminal charge, the hotel worker was kept out of harm’s way, and the City saved thousands of dollars on housing the person in jail and prosecuting him.
The secret sauce
Many pilot projects struggle to scale up their operations, especially when their success depends on exceptional individual talent. Given Davis’s deep personal involvement with We Deliver Care’s operations, replicating the kind of success he saw in that hotel lobby could be challenging, even if the program received enough funding to expand.
But Davis harbors no such doubts about the scalability of his operation. Since its inception, the organization has grown to employ 25 Community Safety Ambassadors, and it has also completed a short-term contract to provide public safety for the Low Income Housing Institute. To support that growth, Davis relies on his extensive network of community ties to identify and recruit people with lived experience of the criminal legal system who want a job that allows them to give back to the community.
Before any of his recruits make it into the field, Davis works his network to find out if they have any history of troubling interactions in the community – regardless of whether those incidents would show up on a traditional criminal history background check. He then evaluates each candidate on ride-alongs during outreach efforts to encampments to monitor their capacity for compassion when interacting with others. If they don’t pass Davis’s vibe check, then they don’t get the gig.
As the organization grows, Davis would focus more on the hiring process than on responding to actual calls himself. Since mass incarceration has created no shortage of people returning from prison or jail with the need for employment and the lived experience Davis looks for, he seems confident in We Deliver Care’s ability to find quality recruits for the program.
Of course, you’d expect the guy running an operation to be optimistic about its impact. But a holistic review of JustCARE’s effect on the neighborhoods it serves shows Davis’s safety teams have made a measurable difference.
After the program’s first year of operation, researchers with the University of Washington conducted a study of JustCARE that included findings about the work We Deliver Care does with the organization. Their analysis showed a 39% reduction in 911 calls in the neighborhoods where they operate, and a 12% reduction in 911 calls from the hotels where the program provides shelter.
All evidence points to Seattle having stumbled upon a promising candidate for providing public safety without the danger and expense of over-relying on uniformed cops. The only remaining question is whether City leaders will find a way to keep JustCARE, and consequently Davis’s We Deliver Care, sustainably funded. The program’s current funding will expire at the end of this month, and the program will shut down unless the City can find $10 million per year to keep it in operation.