Changing the way Seattle Responds on Public Safety: Amy Smith on the Front Lines


On September 21, 2023, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell announced the formation of CARE, the Community Assisted Response and Engagement department which replaces and enhances the former Community Safety and Communications Center (CSCC). A release from the Mayor’s office stated that CARE — yet another effort to create a non-police response unit in the aftermath of the protests at police shootings — will become the third public safety department in city government.

CARE will consolidate both new and existing programs. “The new department will have three divisions: emergency call takers and dispatchers in the 911 Center; community-focused public safety responders including behavioral health professionals; and violence intervention specialists currently siloed in different departments.”

Since the CARE dual-response pilot launched in October, six behavioral health specialists have been hired to respond to calls about people who are experiencing crisis in the downtown area. Average time of response has been five minutes. Dispatchers for 911 concurrently send a dual response, meaning behavioral health professionals and a police unit to ensure that the situation is safe. CARE teams can then spend the time needed (an average of 45 minutes) to connect someone to services, freeing police responders to move on to other calls. Future plans include bringing more programs under the 911 dispatch umbrella, using data to make sure those dispatches are as efficient and effective.

Acting CARE department chief, Amy Smith, began working for the City of Seattle in April of 2023. She led the transition from CSCC to CARE, launched the behavioral response team’s pilot program, and redesigned administrative functions of the new department. She has met with leaders in the community to understand everything from the medical needs of fentanyl users to the challenges of providing food and shelter to the roughly 8,000 unsheltered people in Seattle.

In the past, Smith has solved tough problems in the services sector. But this is her first time working for a government entity and her first experience coordinating efforts across departments that have different cultures, union representation, and training and action protocols. Of her role in city government she said, “I’m like political tofu. I absorb the flavors around me. I love the collaborative spirit.”

What does Smith bring to the table? At age 47, she has experience as an entrepreneur, program director, and fundraiser. She likes to use data science to identify problems and formulate solutions. She sees systems as complex math problems, adding, “I like math. And I know that problems are solvable.”

Smith grew up with a passion for reading, writing, and philosophy. She was a middle child in a working-class family and the first in her family to go to college. She attended Brigham Young University where she studied the arts as an undergraduate and expected to go to law school.

Instead, she got married, returned to her hometown of Portland, Oregon, and started having children. She taught piano as her mother had done, later opening a music school that gave students both private and group instruction as well as computer-based lab experiences. She expected to lose money for at least a year but broke even after one month.

After several years of music school success, in one year she had to deal with the death of her father, the birth of her fourth child, and a faltering marriage. “The new Amy emerged from that season,” she recalls. Smith sold her business and directed activities at a nonprofit that focuses on arts education and urban livability. She served meals to the hungry, invited unsheltered people into her office, and learned the basics of fundraising.

In 2010, she moved to Seattle and enrolled in classes at the University of Washington where she learned the business of non-profit management. She did a class project about Amara, a Seattle non-profit that serves children and adults who in the foster care system. Subsequently, she got a job at Amara.

She later moved to Cincinnati where she continued to work primarily in non-profit philanthropy. Smith earned a Master’s degree in Ethical Leadership, and later an Ed.D in Organizational Learning from Vanderbilt University. At one point Smith and her children were all taking statistics.

She moved back to Seattle about a year ago to be closer to her children who had returned to the Northwest. She was looking for new ways to contribute. After observing the public safety crisis on Seattle’s streets, she contacted Mayor Harrell’s office. She and the Mayor’s office discussed multiple options before agreeing that establishing the third public safety department in Seattle city government was a good “fit” for her background and skills.

“It feels like religion to me. My work demonstrates my values commitment and passion.” Less than a year into her new work in Seattle, she is hopeful that Seattle can “believe in itself again.” She looks forward to being the “tofu” in the mix of elected officials, public safety professionals, and city administrators who are working to change the nature of the city’s response to crime, poverty, hopelessness, and homelessness. That’s a big assignment, one that has made little progress so far.

Sally J. McMillan
Sally J. McMillan
Sally J. McMillan, author of "Digital Immigrants and Media Integration," is a writer, academician, and organizational leader. She has been a high school teacher, book editor, non-profit leader, journalist, technology executive, university professor, academic administrator, and higher education consultant.


  1. Here we go again. This paen of praise for “…another effort to create a non-police response unit in the aftermath of the protests at police shootings…” leaves me cold. How many times must we keep hearing about “behavioral” solutions to theft, crime, addiction? These approaches have all been tried. Ask Matthew J. Parker, gifted writer, former heroin addict, and resident of San Francisco.

    In “A Junkie By Any Other Name”

    Parker spells out why continuing to pretend crime is really just a cry for help—is nuts! ” You thought you could decriminalize petty crime and not drugs, but handing a license-to-steal to addicts and everybody is both foolhardy and facilitating, especially given that the price of drugs is still prohibitive.”

    I’d also love to tell you (if I thought you cared a damn) how many people like me are tired of having our cars broken into, of having our catalytic converters smashed off (goodbye, $1000K to fix) of being scared to death to walk down darkened streets we used to travel with ease.

    That approach isn’t working in San Francisco. And it’s not going to work here. Bring back arrests for thefts and other “petty crime” and for God’s sake, stop with the curse acronyms about how we need to CARE more.

    • I can’t say for sure what “people who are experiencing crisis” means, but my vague picture doesn’t including people stealing your catalytic converter.

      Seattle apparently feels some obligation to send someone out when they get word of someone experiencing crisis. Send whom? Police? They would have the advantage of being prepared to shoot them and put them out of their misery, but this gets in the way of their vigorous pursuit of your catalytic converter thieves. I think that’s the theory in a nutshell.

      • I think it’s a fairly safe bet from your sneering response. that you’ve never been the victim of violent crime, theft, or burglary in Seattle. You’ve never had your car windows broken into, or your car left trashed by juveniles, who, from the video capture I saw, seemed to be high as hell. Car vandalism, which you seem to feel is nothing, has cost me more than $2,000 out of pocket in the last six months. And would you please provide an example of a time when Seattle police shot down someone who was experiencing a ‘crisis’?

    • Hi Trish, I am a strong advocate for SPD and don’t ever speak publicly without stressing the urgent need to bolster that department. The pilot was designed primarily with Assistant Chief Dan Nelson, Seattle’s first SPD co-responder. The intent here is primarily to free up police to do urgent police work rather than devoting time to welfare check type calls.

    • I don’t know what this means. Thank you for caring? Thank you for sharing? Thank you for suffering? Thank you for being important? What exactly do you mean?

  2. I’m suffering as someone whose home has been broken into, whose car has been stolen and whose business has been broken into multiple times and vandalized by those that are seen as ‘suffering’. When do people stop pretending and wake up! We have a huge problem in this city and we need to hold people accountable for their actions. In what world do people get to do whatever they want at the (literal) expense of everyone else? I’m so tired of Seattle’s approach to these issues. People are asking politicians to do more and they ignore our voices and throw more money at a problem that is getting worse and not better. They sure don’t throw tax dollars at business owners keeping Seattle’s economy running, the same business owners who suffer from thousands of dollars of break-ins and acts of vandalism to their businesses. Not to mention people living in their neighborhoods who are afraid to walk streets without fear of encountering these people who live with no recourse for their criminal actions.

    • Hi Heather, I believe we will see some significant changes this year — new leadership, and a better understanding that a healthy community requires accountability. The intent of the pilot is primarily to free up police to do urgent police work rather than devoting time to welfare check type calls. Your frustration is commonplace right now…

    • Heather …. I haven’t had my business broken into, or my home, (yet), but my car’s been left undrivable, I’ve been knocked down to the sidewalk by a gang of 3 girls, but where is the recourse for us? Instead, based on zero evidence that this approach works, we see yet more millions spent to defuse “people in crisis.” Which, apparently, does not extend to crime victims. Where’s the recourse for us?

  3. This is not going to help and Seattle will lose the fight. We need someone more qualified. We don’t need tofu we need someone that is tuff. I moved out of Seattle due to crime.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Comments Policy

Please be respectful. No personal attacks. Your comment should add something to the topic discussion or it will not be published. All comments are reviewed before being published. Comments are the opinions of their contributors and not those of Post alley or its editors.