SAN JOSE -- The San Jose Police Department marked a historic day Thursday by graduating its inaugural class of Community Service Officers, who will be tasked with easing the burden off an undermanned and overworked patrol force.
It made for upbeat but sober spirits at a South San Jose church where 25 men and women received the first-ever CSO badges issued in the city.
"You're the not the cure-all for all our staffing needs," Chief Larry Esquivel told the graduates. "But you're definitely a much-needed shot in the arm."
Mayor Chuck Reed, architect of controversial reforms to rein in spiraling police pensions that coincided with shrinking officer numbers, voiced similarly thoughts.
"We can't do everything we want to do, but being able to add these CSO's is a very big thing for San Jose," he said.
It was a moment for celebration for a group filling a new niche in city law enforcement.
"I think being the first, we get to take what was meant for the program, and mold and shape it," said Roberto Franco, 44, of San Jose.
The new community officers will respond to nonurgent situations such as burglaries, auto thefts and vandalism. They'll write reports and, in some cases, gather evidence such as dusting for fingerprints but typically won't be handling any calls that involve inherent danger or an active suspect.
They'll wear light-blue uniform tops and carry a police radio, high-powered flashlight and pepper spray, for which they received training similar to that of police academy recruits. They'll drive compact cars affixed with amber light bars.
After five weeks of an academy curriculum built from scratch, the 25 CSO's will undergo three weeks of field training with SJPD officers and then will be sent out on their own.
Their addition comes at a crucial time for the department, where in six years the sworn force has shrunk from 1,400 to just more than 1,000, spurred in large part to a bitter political battle over pension and disability reform. To meet staffing minimums, other divisions such as the detective bureau and special-operations have been pulled into working patrols.
"It has come at the perfect time," said Sgt. Skip Harsany, who will oversee the new program. "
The hope is the CSO's take will free up street officers to focus on proactive arrests and crime prevention.
"We're not trying to take over," said Kellie Carroll, 50, recipient of the class's leadership award. "We're there to supplement them."
The inaugural class was whittled down from a pool of 800 initial applicants, and break down nearly evenly by gender: 13 men and 12 women spanning young and older, different races and backgrounds. Some already worked with police in a civilian capacity, like Carroll, who after 22 years as a dispatcher will be up close and personal with the kinds of people she used to help over the phone.
"It's going to be awesome," Carroll said. "I'm looking forward to it."
In other police circles, the department's ongoing struggles with recruiting and retaining officers has spurred some skepticism over whether leaders are doing enough to address the shortfall.
"I appreciate the fact they're out there and sincerely here to help, but we need cops," said Sgt. Jim Unland, president of the San Jose Police Officers' Association. "It's a distraction from the real problem: we cannot hire and retain police officers."
The CSO's will work Monday through Friday, between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. -- hours police say the preponderance of cold-call reports are made -- with a four-hour overlap in the middle of the day. They'll be split evenly among the city's four patrol divisions with headquarters at the new police substation in South San Jose.
A police lieutenant will serve as their day-to-day supervisor, with Harsany overseeing the overall performance. Any complaints will be fielded by the department's internal-affairs unit, the same as if they were sworn officers.
They will also be expected to fill the community-relations gap with residents and merchants that has grown with sworn officers increasingly prioritizing emergency calls.
"We want them out talking to the community, let them know what they do and why they're here, and do some of the community policing many of our patrol officers don't have the time to handle."
Contact Robert Salonga at 408-920-5002. Follow him at Twitter.com/robertsalonga.