by Erica C Barnett
(This article was originally published on C is for Crank and has been reprinted with permission)
Last month, the Seattle Police Department and City Council member Mike O’Brien announced that the city would spend $2 million over the next two years to reinstate the mothballed Community Service Officer program and hire around a dozen new CSOs—unarmed SPD employees trained to respond to low-level calls, including minor property crimes, landlord-tenant disputes, runaway kids, and “nuisance” crimes like public intoxication. Over the course of 2017, a team of representatives from city departments, along with the independent Community Police Commission, will decide what the CSOs’ job descriptions will be, what kind of services they will and won’t provide, and even to whom they will report.
The CSO program, which lasted 33 years before it was shut down in 2004 under then-mayor Greg Nickels and his police chief Gil Kerlikowske, was originally launched in response to allegations of racially biased policing and excessive use of force against African Americans in the Central Area in the late 1960s. The goal of using unarmed officers was twofold: To deescalate tensions between SPD and Central Area residents, and to create a recruiting and training pipeline to hire more African American police officers. In practice, the CSOs did everything from mediating landlord-tenant disputes, to driving children home from court when their parents were taken into custody, to reuniting homeless youth with their families.
“It was sort of the civilian version of the fire department pulling cats out of trees,” says Lisa Daugaard, director of the Public Defender Association and co-chair of the CPC. “A lot of times, sworn officers with weapons are just not the right profile for those jobs.” Council member Tim Burgess, who served on the police force in the 1970s when the program was just getting off the ground, recalls that the program was “an attempt to have an arm of the police department that was not perceived as enforcement oriented, as a positive community relations effort.”
Community activist Nancy Amidei, who has worked with homeless youth in the University District since the ’90s, says that when the program was in effect, “no matter what was going on, you knew that if you called on them the situation would get defused, because everyone quickly learned that they don’t make arrests. … They managed to build up enormous trust among businesses, church people, and street youth” alike. In its heyday, the program boasted three dozen civilian officers, who carried radios instead of guns and could call for backup when they needed—which, according to the former CSOs I spoke to, was almost never.
“We could help you or we could hinder you,” says Michale Crooks, who worked as a CSO from 1993 to 2002. “We could get officers to deal with a situation if there was a problem, and so there was a certain authority that came along with it, even though we didn’t have the arresting powers or gun.”
Nearly 13 years after the CSO program ended, a lot has changed in Seattle. Crime, including property crime, has declined across the board since the late 1990s and early 2000s, although Washington’s property crime rate remains one of the highest in the nation. Homelessness has increased in scale and become common in neighborhoods where visible poverty was once rare. The heroin and opiate addiction epidemic has put increasing numbers of people with substance use disorders on the streets, where they leave needles in public places and are themselves a newly visible presence. And the city is under a consent decree from the department of justice because of racially biased policing—a sign, perhaps, that some things change more slowly than others.
“No matter how much progress we have made in recent decades, one could argue that we’re back to where we were decades ago,” says council member Bruce Harrell, who vowed in his campaign last year to reinstitute the CSO program. “The tensions between the African American community, and other underrepresented communities [and SPD] are still there. … I continue to go to places in 2017 where you see many officers who routinely do not speak, do not smile, and do not interface with the community, and what I liked about the CSOs is that they epitomized what a personable representative of the police force could look like.”
Tensions between SPD and communities of color are so fraught, in fact, that some advocates are suggesting that the CSO program should be housed outside the police department altogether, perhaps as an independent body or within a community group not affiliated with the city. Dustin Washington, director of the American Friends Service Committee’s community justice program in Seattle, says the the only way to establish “authentic relationships” between CSOs and the communities they serve is “for [the program] not to be housed in SPD. I think it needs to go through a more rigorous community process, [where] what’s important is engaging in communities who have a sense of their own power.”
O’Brien, who represents a largely white district where community complaints are mostly about property crime, rather than negative interactions with police, says, “frankly, as a white male from the upper middle class, I don’t particularly feel intimidated by police officers, but I know that a lot of folks do. So having someone that’s in uniform, that carries some authority but is clearly not a police officer, is a middle ground that I think addresses some of that concern.”
SPD, for its part, seems adamant that CSOs should be an in-house operation with police-like responsibilities; otherwise, SPD chief operating officer Brian Maxey says, CSOs will just be “softer police officers with community engagement responsibilities.” Maxey says that, ideally, CSOs would act more like “a civilian patrol support unit” that responds to lower-priority 911 and nonemergency calls, like domestic disturbances and car prowls, than “one-stop social service workers” that take care of problems that communities don’t trust SPD to address.
“This concept that somehow police officers are unable to successfully have community engagement—I reject that, and I do not think we should create a specialized unit to do that,” Maxey says. “I hear that a lot from some of our city partners, that we need CSOs who are unarmed and not as scary or intimidating as regular cops that can help with community engagement. They’re missing the point. The point is that every police officer has got to be capable of engaging with the community.”
Harrell, who represents Southeast Seattle, is skeptical that uniformed cops will be able to turn on that particular dime. “Whatever department they ultimately report to, it’s very critical that they have autonomy from the police department,” Harrell says. “Many times, they might take action that the police department might not have preferred, and they have to have that autonomy. To me, the critical issue is how the public perceives them, and if they just see this persona as a uniformed police officer without a gun, that’s not going to work.”