The city of Seattle is supplementing the ranks of police by hiring 12 unarmed, noncommissioned officers to respond to noncriminal calls and help connect people with social services.
By bringing back the department’s community service officer program, the city hopes to free up police officers to focus on criminal activity and increase community engagement. The program initially ran for 33 years before getting defunded in 2004.
The department’s 12 community service officers (CSOs) will include two supervisors.
“I am pleased that this program is being restored and will once again support our police officers in their work to promote public safety in our neighborhoods,” said Police Chief Carmen Best in a statement.
CSOs will not have the authority to enforce the law as a traditional police officer would, and their uniforms and patrol cars will be distinctly marked.
Councilmember Lisa Herbold said the initiative aims to “free up police officers to better respond to 911 calls and do other proactive policing work” as well as to “help with SPD patrol staffing recruitment.”
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s $5.9 billion budget, passed 8-1 by the City Council in November, earmarked about $1.3 million in 2019 and $1.67 million in 2020 for the CSO program.
Former Mayor Ed Murray’s 2016 budget included an initial $2 million for the CSO initiative, with $200,000 allocated for developing the program in 2017 and another $1.8 million allocated for initial implementation in 2018. Councilmember Mike O’Brien — the primary sponsor of that 2016 budget item — said that the $1.8 million would have covered CSO wages, but never got spent and instead was reappropriated for 2019.
Now, more than two and a half years after the initial budgeting, O’Brien hopes to see the program go live by September or October. “It has been a long time since we first funded the program,” he noted, “so I am hoping for no additional delay.”
In addition to connecting residents with city programs related to homelessness, substance abuse and food access, CSOs will be responsible for conflict mediation, community outreach and at-risk youth programming. A public job posting describes the role as “liaison personnel between the community and the SPD” and emphasizes the need for “system navigators” familiar with the public services with which residents can be connected.
The department expressed a desire to hire people from groups “currently underrepresented” on the force, including “elders, immigrants, and individuals with past involvement in the criminal justice system.”
The CSO program will operate under the Collaborative Policing Bureau, a new department set to be created under the new budget. The Police Department currently has an assistant chief for collaborative policing, Adrian Diaz. That position was created last year.
A report sent by Diaz to the City Council in April – as required by a bill that would have otherwise capped the CSO budget – goes into detail on how CSOs will engage with communities of color and the homeless, emphasizing the goal of connecting those in need with other city services, such as the Navigation Team.
“As I envision their work, I believe [the CSOs] could help address some of the concerns we hear about the broader homelessness crisis, but that should by no means be their sole role,” O’Brien said. “I am anxiously watching how the mayor and Police Department decide to roll them out this fall.”
Although CSOs won’t have the same authority as sworn officers, that doesn’t preclude them from being commissioned later. When the program was first implemented in 1971, it was partially framed as a training ground for “developing potential police officers.” Herbold, while advocating for the reintroduction of the CSO program during her 2015 campaign, similarly described it as a “cadet program” that could help SPD meet recruitment goals.
The effort is also part of a broader push by SPD to improve community relations, partially the result of a 2012 consent decree that put the department under federal oversight after the U.S. Attorney’s Office and Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division found evidence of biased policing and routine use of excessive force by officers.
In the memorandum of understanding that accompanied the consent decree, the issue of “community engagement” was identified as warranting review, noting that “SPD needs strong community relationships and sustainable dialogue … to ensure constitutional and bias-free policing.”
The implementation of the CSO program follows last month’s announcement of a first responders “Health One” unit, which similarly aims to reduce the call load on the Seattle Fire Department by creating a team of two firefighters and a social worker who will respond to nonemergency calls about behavior crises, substance abuse, medical issues and social-services needs.
As with the CSO initiative, the Health One unit aims to set up those in need with long-term assistance. Fire Chief Harold Scoggins has said he hopes to have it up and running by October.