SPD’s Community Service Officer is Poised to Grow, But the Program is Still Finding Its Feet

SPD Community Service Officers
SPD Community Service Officer Kevin Hendrix and sworn officer Hosea Crumpton; image via SPD Facebook.

By Paul Kiefer

The re-launch of the Seattle Police Department’s Community Service Officer (CSO) unit at the end of 2019 was quickly overshadowed by a global pandemic. In the two years since, the unarmed civilian team has mostly remained under the radar, handling non-emergency calls, connecting runaway kids and domestic violence victims to service providers, and doing meet-and-greets at 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 positions to 24; the team is still waiting to fill 10 existing positions that have been vacant since the beginning of the summer, so bringing the program to full strength would mean hiring 18 more 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, the CSOs wear light-blue polo shirts and walkie-talkies. But the unit is still part of SPD, and despite pressure from some activists to move the program to a civilian department, the CSOs themselves have been clear that they want to stay put. At the same time, some of the unit’s responsibilities seem increasingly redundant in a growing ecosystem of civilian-led public safety services.

During one week in late September, CSOs appeared at six community gatherings in an effort to “build positive rapport” with community members; according to Chris Inaba, one of the unit’s two civilian supervisors, the purpose of those appearances is both to introduce community members to the CSO program and to act as friendly ambassadors for SPD.

For the police department, the CSO program serves both as an in-house patrol support team and a community relations tool: A friendly, approachable face for a department that is desperately trying to regain public trust. As Seattle shifts its energy toward civilianizing public safety, the CSO program is the department’s most saleable asset—and one that could, according to program leaders, play a key part in reconnecting the city to SPD.

During one week in late September, CSOs appeared at six community gatherings in an effort to “build positive rapport” with community members; according to Chris Inaba, one of the unit’s two civilian supervisors, the purpose of those appearances is both to introduce community members to the CSO program and to act as friendly ambassadors for SPD.

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

Though the current CSO program is still finding its footing, the concept isn’t new to Seattle. The department originally launched the program in the early 1970s in a bid to de-escalate tensions between SPD and Black residents of the Central District—tensions driven by allegations of racist policing and excessive force by the department’s officers—and to create a recruitment pipeline for Black police officers. For 33 years, the unit handled everything from landlord-tenant disputes to reconnecting homeless youth with their families. But after a series of budget cuts under then-mayor Greg Nickels, SPD disbanded the original CSO program in 2004.

Over one week in September, SPD’s patrol staff handed off calls to CSOs ten times. In one case, the officers found shelter space for a homeless family; in another, an officer paid for an Uber to take a domestic violence victim to a friend’s house after connecting them to an advocate.

When SPD and then-City Councilmember Mike O’Brien announced plans to revive the program in 2017, SPD was entangled in allegations of racially biased policing and excessive force—and, as a result, five years into an oversight agreement with the US Department of Justice known as the consent decree. Even before the department assembled a new CSO team, some community activists had already raised the possibility of moving the program out of SPD. But department leadership stood firm, arguing that the CSOs should act as a supplement to patrol, not an autonomous team of social service workers providing wraparound care.

With SPD’s ranks stretched thin after more than a year of high attrition, the CSOs have frequently served in this supplementary role. Over one week in late September, SPD’s patrol staff handed off calls to CSOs ten times. In one case, the officers found shelter space for a homeless family; in another, an officer paid for an Uber to take a domestic violence victim to a friend’s house after connecting them to an advocate.

Right now, Inaba said, the CSOs are among the only responders who have time to handle those tasks. “What we have is time, so we can help free up sworn officer to deal with other things while we help someone figure out where they can find what they need,” he said. In the past year, SPD patrol officers have called CSOs for support on more than 500 emergency calls; Inaba hopes that the city’s 911 dispatch will eventually be able to send CSOs directly to emergency calls, which be believes would add to their usefulness.

The CSOs aren’t the only responders filling that niche. The Seattle Fire Department is expanding its Health One program, which also launched in 2019 to respond to people experiencing substance abuse or mental health crises, and in July, Durkan announced plans for a third civilian response team—tentatively called “Triage Teams”—that will also respond to low-acuity emergency calls.

Lieutenant Kevin Nelson, the sworn SPD officer who oversees the CSO program, noted that the unit’s efforts to conduct youth outreach—and ultimately to run diversion programming—have been less successful. Both Seattle Public Schools administrators and community center staff have rebuffed CSOs’ requests to spend time with students during after-school hours, he said.

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

Currently, the CSO unit itself is stretched too thin to accomplish everything that Inaba, Nelson and department leaders would like it to. By the beginning of the past summer, the unit lost roughly 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—placing it in competition with other civilian emergency response programs like Health One and with the nonprofit youth diversion programs that rely on city grants. City council public safety chair Lisa Herbold expressed her support for the new CSO positions last week; however, Durkan’s proposal could still face scrutiny as other council members weigh whether the CSOs should indeed remain a part of SPD.

4 thoughts on “SPD’s Community Service Officer is Poised to Grow, But the Program is Still Finding Its Feet”

  1. Unarmed community service officers (then called “police aides”) were successfully proven to handle a wide variety of calls for service equally well at lower cost – including assist citizen, motor vehicle accidents, stolen, lost, and recovered property, and noise complaints – in the Worcester Crime Impact Report in…wait for it…1976.

    1. Bryan: Thanks for pointing that out because today’s crop of Progressive idiots likes to think they invented everything. It must be brilliant as long as it came from their own minds. Watch them turn against it when they find out its really old-school.

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