The Santa Barbara Police Department’s two-year-old Community Service Officers (CSO) program has proved more trouble than it’s worth, City Manager Paul Casey told the council on Tuesday. “It isn’t firing on all cylinders,” he said, noting chronic hiring and retention difficulties for the part-time positions held by yellow-shirted, non-sworn peace officers with the authority to issue citations but not to wear a gun or arrest people. “It’s a big time-suck, to be honest, the constant grind of trying to keep those positions filled.”
Originally envisioned as a cost-effective strategy to increase police presence on State Street and curtail nuisance behavior by aggressive panhandlers and what City Hall has called “young urban travelers,” the $150,000-a-year program may soon be retooled into another method of enforcement, Casey said. Whatever happens needs to happen fast, Councilmember Frank Hotchkiss told Police Chief Lori Luhnow. Hotchkiss said he and his colleagues are feeling serious pressure from downtown business interests to better address what merchants feel is a major contributor to record vacancies up and down State Street.
Luhnow and Captain Todd Stoney described the difficulty in managing behavior that may be rude and crude but doesn’t cross the line into a legal offense. “We handle the criminal element,” said Luhnow. “It’s not a crime to be homeless.” Hotchkiss demanded to know, then, how those who may offend shoppers with their presence and language could be forced to adjust their “attitude.” Luhnow responded, “Everything we do is a balance; everyone has civil rights.” The department would not, she emphasized, “promote a culture of bullying.” Hotchkiss bristled at the comment. “You just said we can’t be bullies, but we’re allowing people to bully us,” he said. “That doesn’t make sense to me.”
Despite the somewhat tense exchange, Luhnow had mostly good news for the council in her monthly report. She introduced a dozen smiling recruits in the audience and reported the department has filled 141 of its 142 positions, a significant turnaround after years of staffing issues. Three hires have been made for the new Student Neighborhood Assistance Program (SNAP) created by the city and Santa Barbara City College to address the noisy and unruly behavior of some students living on the Mesa. And property and violent crimes are down citywide so far this year, Luhnow said.
Councilmember Cathy Murillo complimented Luhnow on her consistent engagement with the city’s immigrant community. She was also glad to hear the department’s ratio of female staff — 20 percent — is among the highest in the country. Councilmember Gregg Hart lauded Luhnow’s overall efforts in her year as chief of a department that had been hamstrung by low morale and empty positions. “There’s an aircraft carrier turning, and it’s taken awhile. But it’s turning, and the evidence is in this room,” he said.