Civilians in Tacoma (WA) Could Be Trained to Take Over Some Police Work

The side of a Tacoma Police Department squad car.
Photo/Tacoma Police

Allison Needles

The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.)

(MCT)

Thousands of emergency calls made in Tacoma could be handled by trained civilians rather than sworn police officers, according to a report released this month.

The Report on the Alternative Response Study, created by Matrix Consulting Group, found that 9.4 percent of calls handled by Tacoma patrol officers per year — about 7,829 — could be diverted to a civilian response group.

The report recommended creating a new civilian community service officer (CSO) classification within the Tacoma Police Department to respond to certain non-emergency calls in the field.

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Those calls could include minor non-injury accidents, petty theft reports, burglary reports considered “cold” (not happening in the moment) and low-priority calls relating to homelessness that do not pose a major risk to the responder.

Diverting those calls would free up patrol officers to be proactive in engaging with the public and focusing on more severe calls for service, the report states.

In a statement to The News Tribune on Wednesday, interim Tacoma police chief Mike Ake said he welcomed the study.

“We recognize that homelessness and mental health are major issues facing our communities and value any insight in how to better serve these vulnerable populations and assist them in receiving the services they need,” Ake said. “I welcome any study that can help improve the efficiency and appropriateness of police response, specifically towards matters that can reasonably be handled by other applicable professionals or organizations.”

The city of Tacoma commissioned the study for $42,000 as part of an effort to transform the city into an “anti-racist organization” following protests and outcry from the public over excessive use of force by police. The city also spent $250,000 this past year to a consulting firm to review and recommend changes to Tacoma Police Department policy, including use of force.

The report suggested adding 10 community service officers and one CSO supervisor position to staff a new civilian response program, totaling $540,265 in initial costs and $1,009,811 in annual personnel costs. The price was calculated based on regional costs and comparisons to agencies in Riverside County, California that have a cost of living that is within 15 percent of Pierce County.

The report evaluated similar civilian response programs in other cities in California, including Fremont, West Sacramento, Rancho Cordova, Roseville and Mountain View. On average, those cities had a call diversion rate of 16 percent.

As an example of a community service officer program, the report linked to a 2014 video by the San Jose Police Department, which explained that its CSOs complete a training academy and how they present themselves differently than sworn officers.

The report suggested CSO uniforms be “functionally distinct such that callers can visibly tell that the CSO is not a law enforcement officer but is equipped to handle their needs effectively. This approach is used almost universally throughout the country.”

The consulting firm also recommended a new “crisis response team” that is independent of the police department and responds to calls involving mental health crises and homelessness-related issues.

The two-shift team would be staffed by civilians, with each shift comprised of one designated crisis responder (DCR) and an emergency medical technician (EMT). The DCR would be a mental health professional contracted through MultiCare to communicate with the person experiencing a mental health crisis. The EMT would be there to assist the DCR with any needed medical care.

Depending on whether the team works four days a week or seven days a week, cost to the city would range from $472,998 to $945,996, including personnel costs, equipment and vehicles.

“Homelessness is a priority for the City of Tacoma. All City departments, including NCS, will continue to work with organizational partners and City leaders to find a solution that works for Tacoma,” Megan Snow, spokesperson for the city, said in an email. “We are committed to continuous improvement for how we provide all services including homelessness to our community. Finding and refining systems to better serve our unhoused residents is important to us, and our ability to partner with the community to end homelessness.”

The city should work with South Sound 911 to better capture data related to homelessness and mental health crises and encampments, the report said. To accommodate that additional workload, the city should beef up its Neighborhood and Community Services Department by adding two outreach staff positions at approximately $134,900.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, the Matrix Consulting Group also conducted a staffing study for the city, in which it recommended adding 12 officers to patrol in order to increase their proactive time spent with the public. The firm said that if the city added a service model to divert calls, it could remove the need to add officers to the department.

“However, it must be noted that these changes will require working with South Sound 911 and police labor representatives in order to implement,” the report cautioned.

A spokesperson for the rank-and-file Tacoma police union, Local 6, did not reply as of Wednesday afternoon to a request for comment on the report.

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