CSO’s make life easier for cops... and residents

       One of the main complaints by Westsiders at meetings last year on panhandling problems was a lack of responsiveness by the Colorado Springs Police Department.
       In particular, dismayed citizens reported calling in crimes and being directed to websites instead of uniformed personnel.

Vanessa Jones, the lead community service officer for the Police Department’s Gold Hill Division, stands beside her car. The location is Howbert Street next to Bott Park.
Westside Pioneer photo

       Hello, community service officers (CSO's).
       Handling every kind of call except emergencies, the citizen employees free up time for sworn officers to work on high-priority issues, according to Pat Rigdon, the commander of the Gold Hill Police Division (which includes most of the Westside).
       CSO's premiered as a pilot program in the Falcon Division in 2009, funded by an outside grant. The grant ran out after two years, but CSPD officials decided they liked the results so well that general-fund money was freed up to keep it going and add two more officers in 2011.
       The program expanded to all four divisions in 2012, and is doubling in size this year. Each of the city's four divisions now has one full-time CSO and three who are hourly (not quite full-time) year-round. Almost twice as many will be on duty when summer comes, Rigdon said, mostly to aid with code enforcement.
       The full-time CSO for Gold Hill is Vanessa Jones, who spends part of her time in the field and part overseeing the work of the other three. She was one of the earliest CSO's, having started with Falcon in 2011.
       After 15 previous years in a CSPD desk job, Jones said she enjoys being out in the field. “When I go to a residence or workplace, I can investigate and help that citizen out,” she said. “And those residents appreciate it. They say, 'Wow, you're here.' I can see that we're making a difference, and that's a good feeling.”
       For the department, responding more personally to victimized citizens “is a focus this year,” Rigdon said. “The last couple of years [at Gold Hill], we've been handling more calls on the phone. We're trying to reverse that trend and answer calls in person.”
       The CSPD has an academy for CSO's. Training includes crime prevention, writing reports and coordinating with sworn officers.
       “They know how to check for evidence, and they'll contact neighbors and give tips,” Rigdon said. “In a bad situation, it's a nice thing to have someone who cares. Hopefully, what they do will lead to crimes being solved.”
       Bonnie Lapora, a resident representing the 133-home Grandview neighborhood north of Colorado Avenue and west of 31st Street, said she has already seen favorable results. When expensive musical equipment was stolen recently from a resident's van, the CSO “took fingerprints and talked to several neighbors,” she said. In the past, when the police would come, “they'd just take a report and leave,” she added. “I was very impressed. I e-mailed all the neighbors to tell them the police are doing something that I thought was above and beyond what's normal.”
       Another way the CSO's help out, when they are not otherwise assigned, is being a presence in high-crime areas. For example, Rigdon said, “We've had thefts in the Red Rock Canyon and Garden of the Gods parking lots. If they [CSO's] have a report to write, they can go there and work on it in their car. I'm quite certain that acts as a deterrent. It certainly can't hurt.”
       The civilian officers dress like code enforcement officers, wearing blue pants and a neon green and blue shirt. The badge says Community Service Officer, as does the signs on their cars.
       CSO's do not carry guns, but are armed with pepper spray. Although their training includes self-defense, their mandate is to avoid confrontations. If anyone gets aggressive, they just back away, Jones explained.
       The CSO program is part of a city effort to bring the police force to its authorized strength of 635 and maintain sworn staffing at 98 percent or better, the City Police budget reports. The overall police budget hike from 2012 to this year is nearly $1.5 million. The CSO portion is $650,000.

Westside Pioneer article