SPD community service worker on the cusp of growing up, but the program still finds its feet

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Kevin Hendrix, SPD Community Service Officer, and Sworn Officer Hosea Crumpton; image via SPD Facebook.

By Paul Kiefer

The relaunch of the Seattle Police Department’s Community Service Officer (CSO) unit in late 2019 was quickly overshadowed by a global pandemic. For the next two years, the unarmed civilian team remained mostly under the radar, handling non-emergency calls, connecting runaway children and victims of domestic violence with service providers, and arranging meetings during neighborhood events.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s 2022 budget proposal would add six new officers to the CSO program, making it the only police department program to gain new full-time positions next year. Durkan’s plan would bring the total funded posts to 24; the team is still waiting to fill 10 existing positions that have been vacant since the start of the summer, so bringing the program to full capacity would mean hiring an additional 18 people.

In some ways, the city council’s vocal support for scaling up alternatives to traditional (armed) police puts the CSO program in an advantageous position: instead of bulletproof vests and a gun belt. , CSOs wear light blue polo shirts and walkie-talkies. But the unit is still part of the SPD, and despite pressure from some activists to move the program to a civilian department, the CSOs themselves have made it clear that they want to stay put. At the same time, some of the unit’s responsibilities appear increasingly redundant in a growing ecosystem of civilian-led public security services.

For a week at the end of September, CSOs participated in six community gatherings with the aim of “building positive relationships” with community members; According to Chris Inaba, one of the unit’s two civilian supervisors, the purpose of these appearances is both to introduce community members to the CSO agenda and to act as friendly ambassadors for the SPD.

For the police service, the CSO program serves as both an internal patrol support team and a community relations tool: a friendly and approachable face for a service desperately trying to regain public trust. As Seattle directs its energy towards civilizing public safety, the CSO program is the department’s most salable asset and could, according to program officials, play a key role in reconnecting the city to the SPD.

For a week at the end of September, CSOs participated in six community gatherings with the aim of “building positive relationships” with community members; According to Chris Inaba, one of the unit’s two civilian supervisors, the purpose of these appearances is both to introduce community members to the CSO agenda and to act as friendly ambassadors for the SPD.

Inaba was one of the first people the department hired when the city finally revived the CSO program in 2019. Prior to joining SPD, he spent three years working for the Downtown Seattle Association as a security supervisor. and outreach case manager.

While the current CSO program is still finding its feet, the concept is not new to Seattle. The department initially started the program in the early 1970s with the aim of defusing tensions between the SPD and black residents of the Central District – tensions sparked by allegations of racist police and excessive force by officers in the department – and to create a recruitment channel for Black police officers. For 33 years, the unit has taken care of everything from landlord-tenant disputes to reconnecting homeless youth with their families. But after a series of budget cuts under then-mayor Greg Nickels, the SPD dissolved the original CSO agenda in 2004.

For a week in September, SPD patrol staff made ten calls to CSOs. In one case, officers found shelter for a homeless family; in another, an officer paid an Uber to take a victim of domestic violence to a friend’s house after connecting her with a lawyer.

When the SPD and then-city council member Mike O’Brien announced their intention to relaunch the program in 2017, the SPD was embroiled in allegations of racist police and excessive force – and, as a result, five years after the start of a monitoring agreement with the US Department of Justice known as the Consent Order. Even before the department assembled a new CSO team, some community activists had already raised the possibility of pulling the program out of the SPD. But the department’s leadership stood firm, arguing that CSOs should act as a complement to the patrol, not as an autonomous team of social workers providing enveloping care.

With the ranks of the SPD stretched after more than a year of high attrition, CSOs have frequently fulfilled this additional role. Over a week at the end of September, SPD patrol staff sent calls to CSOs ten times. In one case, officers found shelter for a homeless family; in another, an officer paid an Uber to take a victim of domestic violence to a friend’s house after connecting her with a lawyer.

Right now, said Inaba, CSOs are among the only stakeholders who have the time to manage these tasks. “What we have is time, so we can help free a sworn officer to take care of other things while we help someone figure out where to find what they need,” did he declare. Over the past year, SPD patrol officers have called on CSOs for help on more than 500 emergency calls; Inaba is hoping that the city’s 911 dispatch can eventually send CSOs directly to emergency calls, which he says would add to their usefulness.

CSOs are not the only stakeholders to fill this niche. The Seattle Fire Department is expanding its Health One program, which was also launched in 2019 to respond to people with substance abuse or mental health crises, and in July Durkan announced plans for a third response team. civilian – tentatively called “marshalling teams” – which will also respond to low-severity emergency calls.

Lt. Kevin Nelson, the sworn SPD officer who oversees the CSO program, noted that the unit’s efforts to conduct outreach to youth and ultimately run diversion programs have been less successful. Seattle public school administrators and community center staff have rejected requests from CSOs to spend time with students after school hours, he said.

As with alternative crisis response teams, CSOs are far from the only program interested in youth diversion programs; some, like Choose 180, are well established and increasingly integrated into the city’s juvenile justice system. But Inaba believes there is still a niche for CSOs. “Our job is to let young people know that they can trust the ministry,” he said. “The most important thing is to make them feel comfortable reporting things to the police, so I think public safety would be beneficial if they found out that the department is there to protect them.” This task, he said, can only be accomplished by the SPD itself – and CSOs are the department’s best bet for the job.

Currently, the CSO unit itself is too stretched to do anything that Inaba, Nelson and the department heads would have it do. Early last summer, the unit lost about two-thirds of its staff – one became a police officer and another joined the Tacoma city attorney’s office.

From SPD’s perspective, the CSO unit needs new blood to reach its full potential. But expanding the unit by a third will cost money – $ 1.3 million – which will put it in competition with other civilian emergency response programs like Health One and with the non-profit youth diversion that depends on city grants. City Council Public Safety Chairperson Lisa Herbold expressed support for the new CSO positions last week; However, Durkan’s proposal could still come under scrutiny as other board members question whether CSOs should indeed remain part of the SPD.


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