How community service officers help augment the Burlington police force

Published: Jun. 29, 2022 at 5:48 PM EDT|Updated: Jun. 29, 2022 at 6:27 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - When the City Council voted to slash Burlington’s police force by 30% back in 2020, millions of dollars began funneling into transformative types of policing. Now, Burlington has a host of unarmed employees patrolling the streets, like community service officers, community service liaisons and the new urban park rangers.

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

But with 2020′s racial reckoning and subsequent slashing of the police department followed by significant attrition, the CSOs have been utilized to respond to the low level or priority three calls, to hopefully free up the armed, sworn-in officers to respond to more significant calls.

“I’m here to try to help find solutions for neighbors so everyone can coexist 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 at the Burlington Waterfront.

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

One goal of the program is to provide public safety without needing as many fully trained and armed police officers.

“It helps people psychologically seeing someone walking around. They feel safer than feeling like they are out there by themselves,” 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 crashes, plus they act as a visible presence downtown.

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

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

“It’s what the community wants; they want police officers handling criminal matters and they want nonpolice officers handling other stuff,” Stirling said.

CSOs are only armed with pepper spray, and to the knowledge of the supervisor, Sgt. Ross, they’ve never had to deploy it.

“I think on these low-level calls, like noise complaints, people appreciate seeing somebody who is not a police officer come to their door,” Ross said.

“I think it’s more comfortable that they are unarmed but they are also here to help. Being a person of color, it feels very much like you’re against me, so it’s like the fact they are unarmed and they are going to solve an issue without using violence is more comforting,” said Misky Noor of Burlington.

In this week’s budget, the City Council authorized the CSOs to expand to 12.

Stirling feels like she’s getting a chance to make a difference.

“You get to really help folks and see the immediate gratification of solving their problem for them,” she said. “It’s been great to work in Burlington. I grew up here, so it’s been nice to take care of the community I came from.”

I was able to speak off-camera to business owners on Church Street who said there’s a big problem with crime and disorderly conduct on the marketplace. However, they said having another set of eyes such as the CSOs would be beneficial because the more people looking out for issues, the more who will see them.

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