Long Beach could soon begin the process of hiring civilians who would respond to some lower-level crime calls instead of sworn police officers, an idea that the Long Beach Police Department originally proposed nearly two years ago as it tried to cut its budget.

The community service assistant program will create 16 new civilian jobs at the department with duties will include responding to “priority 3” calls, which are requests for officers to respond to non-violent incidents. Typically, they include filling out police reports after a crime has occurred. By contrast, officers would still respond to more urgent calls, such as “priority 1” incidents that could include serious injuries, possible loss of life or other emergencies.

The assistants will not be armed or drive in typical black-and-white police vehicles, but they will carry pepper gel (similar to pepper spray), be trained in evidence documentation and be taught how to fill out police reports.

LBPD Lt. Eric Matusak said that there is currently a list of 36 types of calls that community service assistants could handle. They include things like burglaries where police reports need to be filed or graffiti that needs to be documented.

“Basically they’d go out there, take some pictures and put some information in to have the city’s contractor go out and remove the tagging,” Matusak said.

Other calls, such as reports of fireworks use and other incidents with suspect information would still require sworn officers to respond. The LBPD declined to release the full list of calls that will be handled by community service assistants because the list, and the positions themselves, have yet to be approved.

The proposal to create the program came in the months following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, which was followed by weeks of protests in Long Beach calling for the police budget to be cut and the city to reimagine how it addresses crime.

The LBPD and other departments had been told by city management to identify voluntary cuts to their budgets to help the city close the funding hole that was created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Transitioning 16 sworn officer positions to cheaper civilian positions was one of the solutions the department proposed during the 2020 budget cycle. Implementing it has been slowed by labor negotiations, COVID-19 infections that derailed cross-departmental meetings, and defining what the community service assistant will and won’t do.

In 2020, members of the public criticized the idea, saying that the cuts did not go far enough to defund the police and that officers would still be responding to calls about mental health issues and other situations where they didn’t think law enforcement was warranted.

Under the current proposal for community service assistants, police officers will likely still be required on mental health calls as outlined in the LBPD field training program guidelines.

Before Long Beach hires any community service assistants, the Civil Service Commission and City Council still need to approve the new employee designations. Mastusak said the department expects that to happen soon.

The community service assistants would be employees of the LBPD and undergo training similar to what police recruits receive in the academy. The information, however, will be tailored to the specific types of calls that they’ll handle. Some of the skills taught will center around procedural justice and also equip them with basic life-saving skills like CPR.

In addition to classroom training, the community service assistants will have to complete a three-month ride-along program with a field training officer before being sent out into the community, Matusak said.

The new positions will pay about $22 per hour, and the employees will generally work shifts during daytime hours with the latest currently projected to run until about 10 p.m.

Matusak said that the new positions are going to be valuable to sworn officers because they will allow them to do more proactive police work rather than worrying about running from call to call just to fill out paperwork or take a report.

“When we have these folks on board that’s all they’re going to be doing,” Matusak said. “Response times for priority 3 are going to go down.”

Some elements of the new program still need to be worked out, such as finalizing the training curriculum, what kind of vehicles assistants will drive—the city is looking at electric and hybrid options—and which department will pay for them.

Once the council approves the program, the LBPD plans to start recruitment and hiring soon after. Matusak said the program could be a stepping stone to a career in law enforcement for people hoping to eventually become police officers.

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Civilians, not cops, would respond to some police calls under proposed budget

Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @JasonRuiz_LB on Twitter.