How Community Services Officers Help Increase Burlington’s Police Force

BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) – When the City Council voted to cut Burlington’s police force by 30% in 2020, millions of dollars began flowing into transformative types of policing. Now Burlington has a host of unarmed personnel patrolling the streets, such as community service officers, community service liaison officers and the new city park rangers.

Community Service Officers or CSOs are not a new concept in Burlington. They go back more than seven years. However, there have only ever been a couple at a time in the department.

But with the racial reckoning of 2020 and the subsequent reduction in police service followed by significant attrition, CSOs have been used to respond to low level or priority three calls, to hopefully release armed officers and sworn in to answer more important calls.

“I’m here to try to help find solutions for neighbors so everyone can co-exist peacefully,” said Cassandra Stirling, who has been a CSO with the Burlington Police Department for five and a half years.

I joined Stirling and another CSO, Dominic Tenan, as they conducted a foot patrol on the Burlington waterfront.

Stirling has seen the program expand dramatically, from two to now seven CSOs patrolling the city.

One of the goals of the program is to provide public safety without the need for so many well-trained and armed police officers.

“It psychologically helps people to see someone walking around. They feel safer than feeling like they’re alone there,” said Richard Lyons of Burlington.

CSOs are authorized to respond to low-level incidents such as ordinance violations, animal issues like barking or unleashed dogs, or minor car accidents, and they act as a visible presence downtown.

“CSOs really have a lot more time to do foot patrols because their call volume is much lower, so they’re more visible downtown and on the waterfront,” Police Sgt. of Burlington. said Vincent Ross.

They also have the ability to write tickets. Currently, CSOs respond to approximately 8-10% of calls that come into the department.

“That’s what the community wants; they want police to deal with criminal cases and they want non-police to deal with other things,” Stirling said.

The CSOs are armed only with pepper spray and, to the supervisor’s knowledge, Sgt. Ross, they never had to deploy him.

“I think on those low-level calls, like noise complaints, people appreciate having someone who’s not a police officer come to their door,” Ross said.

“I think it’s more comfortable that they’re unarmed, but they’re also there to help. As a person of color I really feel like you’re against me so it’s like the fact that they’re unarmed and they’re going to solve a problem without resorting to violence is more heartwarming,” said Misky Noor of Burlington.

In this week’s budget, the city council authorized CSOs to expand to 12.

Stirling feels like he has a chance to make a difference.

“You can really help people and see the immediate gratification of solving their problem for them,” she said. “It was great to work in Burlington. I grew up here, so it was nice to take care of the community where I come from.

I was able to speak off camera to Church Street business owners who said there was a big problem with crime and disorderly conduct in the marketplace. However, they said it would be beneficial to have another pair of eyes, like CSOs, because the more people who care about the issues, the more people will see them.

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Norma P. Rex