“This has always been a part of our history,” said Sean Whitcomb, Seattle Police Department spokesman.
The unarmed community police officers will work Seattle streets to “handle non-emergency incidents such as neighborhood disputes, investigations, and crime prevention.”
The Community Service Officers program had run for 34 years before being discontinued in 2004 due to budgetary constraints. In 2016, under then-Mayor Ed Murray, the city budgeted $2 million that was supposed to have restarted the program by late 2018.
The long-planned revival comes after a wave of gun violence across the city including deadly shootings on Capitol Hill and in the Central District. In May, Mayor Jenny Durkan toured Capitol Hill to talk about her response to rising concerns about street disorder and her focus on adding more budget for more police and first responders as well as trying to bootstrap social service efforts beyond policing.
Police say they have again increased Capitol Hill’s nightlife patrols and the gang emphasis patrols that SPD says have been underway around the Central District and in Pike/Pine. The department also says its longterm efforts including social programs to curb gun violence are working. Increased involvement with the FBI and ATF following the recent shootings has also helped remove more powerful weapons from the streets.
Meanwhile, City Council representative for the area Kshama Sawant has helped organize efforts to consider approaches that focus on simpler, faster solutions like Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design features near areas of gang violence and at the corner of 21st and Union where 19-year-old Royale Lexing was gunned down in May.
Thursday night, Lorena González — who holds one of the two citywide seats on the council and who has been active in the area and meeting with neighbors and community groups following the deadly 21st and Union shooting — will hold a special meeting of her Gender Equity, Safe Communities, New Americans and Education committee at the Central District’s
Washington Hall Seattle Vocational Institute (the event has been moved!) to discuss gun violence in the area.
The revival of community policing in Seattle has also been a community and meeting focused process.
Police and Seattle’s Office for Civil Rights hosted 30 community meetings to help develop the focus for the renewed program.
A change in administration and digesting the information from the meetings delayed the 2018 start date. Instead, it looks to be re-starting later this year. The program is budgeted to cost $1.3 million this year and $1.7 million next year. Recruiting has already begun, and the department expects it to be fully operating by the end of this year.
The city plan to hire 10 CSO’s, plus two supervisors to respond to non-criminal calls.
“CSOs may assist with mediating non-violent disputes (for example, family, neighborhood, and landlord/tenant) and provide follow-up on calls for non-criminal emergency services. They will work closely with dispatchers, police officers, parking enforcement officers, crime prevention personnel and various social service agencies to coordinate police and social services and exchange information,” according to a press release from Mayor Durkan’s office.
CSO’s will be police department employees, but will not be sworn police officers. They will not be armed and will not have the power of arrest. They will be wearing a uniform, but that uniform will not resemble a police officer’s uniform, Whitcomb said.
CSO’s will help coordinate outreach plans in the city, and also attend community events and develop relationships with people around town.
In addition to mediating the nonviolent disputes, they will be trained to help people navigate the criminal justice system; will be able to help connect people with various social services; and will handle follow-up calls with crime victims.
Currently, these sorts of issues are handled by sworn police officers, Whitcomb said.
“A lot of what police officers do right now is right at the intersection of public safety and public health,” Whitcomb said.
The plan is for CSO’s to take on the calls that are clearly on the public health side of the equation, freeing uniformed officers to deal with the more immediate public safety issues. If a situation should turn more dangerous, the CSO would then call in a uniformed officer.
“It will allow for better overall policing services,” Whitcomb said.
CSO’s may also help with youth outreach, helping coordinate programs for youth, and helping youth and their families navigate social programs.
Initially, Whitcomb said, the CSO’s will work city-wide, either on foot or in a vehicle. Eventually, he said the department hopes to have a robust enough program that they might be assigned to specific geographic areas. So while there won’t be any Capitol Hill-specific CSO’s at first, there may be some in the coming years.
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