Snoqualmie police look to hire behavioral health specialist

Mayors in Snoqualmie and North Bend are in the process of creating a behavioral health specialist position to serve inside the Snoqualmie Police Department.

The development of the new position is in its beginning stages, as the cities work to secure funding and finalize a job description. The specialist would be a licensed mental health or substance abuse professional serving with police, Snoqualmie Fire, Eastside Fire and Rescue and other first responders.

“We realized there is a need up here in the Snoqualmie Valley to have a more responsive and quicker resource for when someone is in a health crisis,” said Snoqualmie Police Chief Perry Phipps. “I think the [state] police reform last year was pretty clear on — and we agree — that police aren’t always the best people to find a solution to these types of crises.”

The position is part of a pilot program that Snoqualmie Mayor Katherine Ross and North Bend Mayor Rob McFarland have been working on alongside State Rep. Lisa Callan to develop. If successful, the program could be expanded to other cities.

For the position to comes to fruition, it will require the approval of $150,000 grant in state funds, which Callan requested via a proviso on Jan. 9. If approved, funding for the specialist would last for a year.

David Breed, a spokesperson for Callan, said the state is still too early in its budgeting process to determine if the request will be fulfilled.

Ross said they had been discussing the need for a behavioral health specialist for a while, especially since state legislators introduced a series of police reform bills last year that limited when officers could use restraint in response to mental health issues.

She added that they hope a new specialist could support Snoqualmie Valley Shelter Services, the hospital and the school district in connecting those in crisis with needed services.

“I think it’s really important, especially for some of our nonprofit organizations,” Ross said. “We are hoping we get this and that it will provide assistance to people that need it.”

Phipps said Snoqualmie Police receive calls about mental health crises daily. He envisions that the new health specialist could ride alongside police during patrol as well as manage their own caseload.

The change would also bring more expertise to the department. Snoqualmie Police are required by state law to complete an annual 40-hour crisis intervention training course. This teaches them how to identify someone in need of services, but Phipps said they still do not have the training of a behavioral specialist.

“I still think the officers are going to respond and help anyway we can,” he said. “But we aren’t experts in that area and it will be nice to have someone who’s better trained and can find a longer-term solution.”

The move for a specialist follows a similar trend nationwide, as many departments are responding to an increase in calls for mental health and substance abuse crises. NPR reported in 2020 that such calls make up about 20% of those received by law enforcement.

Other King County cities have also introduced similar programs. Last May, Issaquah hired a behavioral health coordinator. A similar program has also been introduced in Maple Valley and police in Bothell, Kirkland, Lake Forest Park, Kenmore and Shoreline created a joint navigator program to respond to behavioral health calls.

The possible introduction of a behavioral health specialist is just one of the improvements the Snoqualmie Police Department is looking to undertake, as Phipps said he is continuing to work on a proposal that would fund body worn cameras for his officers.

“They’re both being worked on and they’re both a top priority for us,” he said.