SAN JOSE -- In another response to its ongoing staffing troubles, the San Jose Police Department has started training a battalion of civilian officers aimed at taking some of the burden off an overstretched force.

The city's first-ever Community Service Officer program launched its initial five-week academy Tuesday, which will begin putting 25 recruits -- 13 men and 12 women -- through the paces of what will come to include taking non-urgent burglary and auto-theft calls and helping shoulder a considerable report-writing workload.

"The addition of CSO's to patrol will enhance our operational abilities, freeing up patrol officers from cold reports, enabling them to conduct more proactive police work," Chief Larry Esquivel said in a statement. "This new program will also enhance our community partnership which is critical considering our staffing woes."

Officials are quick to point out that the civilian officers will not be responding to any calls that involve an active suspect and that if civilian officers run into trouble, they are to call for regular police officers. They are going to be equipped with pepper spray in the event of an immediate threat to their safety.

The CSO program has been more than a year in the making. One of the ways police have been trying to sell the program to prospective applicants is that it gives hands-on exposure to police work, as their jobs will entail assisting patrol, writing reports, addressing traffic complaints and noninjury car accidents, and helping with crowd control at special events, among other duties. They may even be called upon to help protect crime scenes.


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The new officers will be supervised by a police sergeant and will wear light-blue uniforms with police-style insignia but will be distinct from the traditional police blues, and drive in white Ford Focus sedans with "Community Service Officer" emblazoned on the side.

The academy graduation is set for Aug. 21, after which graduates will go through three weeks of field training, with a ready-to-deploy date of Sept. 14.

Community service officers serve a supplementary role in Palo Alto, Fremont and several other Bay Area cities, dealing predominantly with so-called "quality of life" crimes like burglary, car theft and vandalism that typically only entail a report being taken.

The inspiration for the program in San Jose, however, is largely to fill a void: SJPD's ranks have shrunk from more than 1,400 in 2008 to just over 1,000 -- about 900 of them street-ready -- and officers continue to leave amid a political battle between the police union and city leaders over pay, disability and pension issues.

Minimum patrol targets call for 492 officers but just 450 are staffing the positions, with the difference made up by overtime shifts worked in part by bringing other divisions into the fold, including detectives and SWAT officers.

How much of a dent the initial 25 civilian officers can make into that shortfall is anyone's guess, but the general goal is to make the CSO program more robust by fielding academies and making hires on a parallel track to the traditional police recruitment process.

Sgt. Jim Unland, president of the San Jose Police Officers' Association, considers the program's existence less of a boon and more of a reflection of the department's recruiting abilities.

"This is not going to decrease our response time, and it doesn't put cops on the street. No one is safer because of this," Unland said.

He also voiced concerns about issuing the CSO's pepper spray, particularly the liability risk since for police officers, it's considered a use of force that can subject them to civil litigation.

The baseline qualifications for becoming a CSO are a high-school diploma, valid driver's license and no felony convictions. They will adhere to city pay steps, starting at around $52,000 and reaching up to $72,000 in nine years. For the inaugural academy class, police reviewed upward of 800 applicants, about 100 of which made it to the backgrounding process and were further vetted until the current crop remained.

Contact Robert Salonga at 408-920-5002. Follow him at Twitter.com/robertsalonga.