Community Service Officer program on hold, possibly on the chopping block

In 2016, the City Council added money into the 2017-2018 city budget to revive the highly regarded Community Service Officer program, with a target roll-out in the second half of this year. But Mayor Durkan has delayed that plan, and suggested that her budget priorities may lie elsewhere.

The Community Service Officer program, originally created in 1971, hired unsworn personnel in the Seattle Police Department. According to the City Council,

The CSO program was originally created in 1971 (Ordinance 99767). SMC 3.28.420 allowed for the hiring of unsworn officers with distinctive uniforms to assist regular police officers by performing community services associated with law enforcement, conducting crime prevention activities, improving relations, and developing potential police officers. The original CSO program connected vulnerable populations with services and provided an important link between the community and the police department. As identified in the CSO job description, CSOs patrolled areas serving populations such as unsheltered individuals, disabled, runaway youth, and the elderly. They mediated neighborhood disputes; provided basic counseling and social services referrals; participated in crime prevention activities, and prepared a variety of incident reports, among other things. Many CSO duties have since been absorbed within SPD or other departments. However, CSOs as unsworn personnel were able to achieve a different community dynamic and place an emphasis on social services over law enforcement functions.

Unfortunately, the program was eliminated in the early 2000’s due to budget cuts. In 2016, the Chinatown-International District Public Safety Task Force recommended the reinstatement of the program as a pilot to help SPD engage better with the community. Council members O’Brien and Herbold took that one step further, putting $200,000 in the 2017 budget for planning and $1.8 million in 2018 for implementation. O’Brien took a victory lap after the budget passed, celebrating the reinstatement of the CSO program.

The recently-released Seattle Public Safety Survey developed by Seattle University found that Seattle residents’ top public-safety concern was the lack of capacity of the Seattle Police Department.

According to a June 27th letter from Council members O’Brien, Herbold, Gonzalez and Bagshaw to Mayor Durkan, SPD and the Office of Civil Rights have since¬† conducted over 40 community meetings to gather input on a revived CSO program. In their letter, the Council members “express continued support for the reinstatement of the Community Service Officer (CSO) program, and to fulfill the promises made to Seattle residents to get the Program off the ground this year.” They note that SPD has been asked to reduce its 2019 budget by 2%, and ask the Mayor to spare the CSO program from those cuts. They close their letter by asking the Mayor for an updated status and timeline for the program.

Last week, the Mayor responded in a letter back to the Council. While she praises the CSO program’s potential and expresses enthusiasm for it, she says, “it would seem prudent to wait on hiring and deploying a new CSO team.” Her reasons are twofold.

First, she wants to wait until interim Chief Carmen Best is confirmed as the permanent Chief of Police, saying, “it is essential that the new Police Chief be given the opportunity to shape the scope and scale of the CSO program. If CSOs are to be truly effective and long-lasting, SPD’s new leadership must have a role in defining how they will be integrated into overall department operations.”

Second, she wants to give Best the chance to “shape the program in the context of fiscal constraints that were not apparent when Council authorized the reestablishment of the CSOs.” She particularly calls out that the Council anticipated making other funding available to address the homelessness crisis. But given the failure of the Council and Mayor to sustain the head tax, she says “this and other priorities will need to be funded from existing resources, and this will force budget choices.”

“For these reasons,” Durkan says, “I do not plan to have SPD move forward with implementing the new CSO program until Interim Chief Best is in the position permanently and the City Council adopts a budget for the 2019-2020 biennium.” Best is on a path for easy confirmation by the middle of August, which means that the real issue is whether the CSO program survives the 2019-2020 budget process.¬† At best, implementation won’t start until either very this year or early 2019 — despite the fact that there is $1.8 million already allocated in this year’s budget to move forward. At worst, the program will be shelved entirely, in favor of reprioritizing funds toward other city needs.

Council members O’Brien, Herbold, Gonzalez and Bagshaw were unavailable for comment this morning.