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Seattle uses extra revenue to relaunch Community Service Officers


The City of Seattle is re-launching a program to hire trained, unarmed, civilian officers to handle public safety issues, which frees up sworn police officers to focus on 911 calls involving criminal activity.

The program of Community Service Officers, or CSOs, ran for more than 30 years from 1971 to 2004, when it was discontinued for lack of funding.

At its height, the City of Seattle had more than 20 CSOs in various neighborhoods, picking up found property, helping domestic violence victims, helping families with runaway teens, and connecting homeless people with shelters.

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As one former CSO described the job on Wednesday, they were the ‘2-1-1’ before ‘2-1-1,’ which refers to a hotline for needs not of a criminal nature.

Cheryl Brush said they were “wearing uniforms, using radios and driving marked cars … but we did not have guns and were not sworn officers. And that opened some doors for us. “

Charles Samspon, who was the first to be hired in the city’s program and the last to be let go, agrees that not having any weapons, pepper spray or mace, put them in a position of having to listen. He said they were well trained to de-escalate situations, like those between landlords and tenants.

When asked about what a CSO would be faced with today, Sampson said, “To me, it’s just as it was in ’71: the reason they created the CSOs – because of the tension between the black community and the police officers.”

The city has allotted $2 million over the next two years to design the program, then hire CSOs in 2018. The money comes from the higher-than-anticipated revenue reported at the end of October.

For the biennium, the City of Seattle found that it would have $6.5 million more than expected for the general fund, largely due to Business and Occupation tax revenue and sales tax revenue, especially from sales related to the construction industry.

Beyond that, the city also closed a tax break for Russell Investments totaling $2 million. Funding for Pronto bike share was also cut, and an IT position for Seattle Public Utilities was removed.

Of that extra revenue, the CSO program is getting $2 million, while the rest is being used on different priorities including homeless lockers, Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, and backpack programs for school kids.

Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole said that CSOs will be tremendously valuable resource.

“If we don’t have community trust, we fail,” she said.

O’Toole said having CSOs respond to lower level issues also frees up officers to focus on responding to crime. Inversely, when officers are occupied fighting crime, community issues sometimes go unaddressed.

“We struggle from time to time just to have enough officers to answer 911 calls. So community policing can pay the price in a scenario like that,” she said.

The idea to revive the CSOs came about during conversations after the death of Donnie Chin, a prominent activist in the Chinatown International District. Chin acted as an unofficial liaison between the community and police.

Chin’s murder has not yet been solved.

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