Community liaison officers maintain contact with residents, organizations
Two Santa Barbara Police officers are on a mission to change the community’s perspective on policing.
As part of the department’s broader philosophy of “community policing” — when police and communities work together to address crime and disorder — two new officer positions were created, specifically to focus on fostering relationships between the department and community organizations.
Officers Heather Clark and Adrian Gutierrez hold the community liaison positions, and they’re focusing on crime and disorder issues that impact local youth.
“It is clear, after meeting with a number of organizations in the city, that (this position) was much needed,” Officer Clark told the News-Press.
Officer Gutierrez told the News-Press that it’s difficult to pinpoint what he and his fellow community liaison officer do on a day-to-day basis, because every day is different.
Officers Gutierrez and Clark might hang out on Santa Barbara’s Eastside to address any disturbances. Or they might go near Franklin Elementary School and do perimeter checks at the parks to ensure adult residents aren’t bothering students.
The officers both attend the weekly Mobile Food Pantry at the Franklin Neighborhood Center to make themselves available for questions and concerns community members may have, with conversations in both English and Spanish. While helping at the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County program, they’re approached often with citizens’ questions about traffic laws, parking issues or how to file a police report.
“Every section of the city has its different issues, or just people to meet, so it’s hard to say day-to-day how it’s going to be. But for the most part, it’s community contact and resident contact as much as we can,” Officer Gutierrez said.
In addition, the liaisons have the ability to take some of the workload off the shoulders of the police department’s investigative bureau.
Officer Clark said longer-term cases such as scams or other issues ”where there’s not really a suspect” can be taken on by herself and Officer Gutierrez. Their positions are designed to address problems that require more community education than enforcement.
School visits are their main focus right now, along with collaborating with the Police Activities League and the South Coast Youth Safety Partnership.
“Especially for students, it helps to desensitize them to seeing our uniforms,” Officer Clark said. “When we show up somewhere, someone sees the car and thinks, ‘Oh my gosh, what happened?’ and sometimes, nothing happened. We just came to say, ‘Hi.’
“It’s nice to see people’s faces light up when we say that, because it totally changes their perspective. Nobody’s writing a parking ticket or yelling or arguing or fighting. I think it provides a different view for law enforcement, especially for young children.”
The police department is planning a community academy, in both English and Spanish, to educate residents about the department’s office hours, services and what officers can assist with, Officer Gutierrez said. He explained the academy will allow the community — and particularly Spanish-speaking residents — to learn more about operations and ask questions.
Officer Clark said the main goal is to provide a friendly face in the field for community members to feel comfortable around.
“We’re hoping that we might be able to change that people see a uniform first,” she said. “We hope that spreads a positive impact to our peers that are working for patrol, and that people feel like they can approach officers with questions that are not necessarily an urgent matter of criminal justice.”
She said the community liaison officer position has been called different things over the years, but she hopes this official position is maintained by the department. She said that all depends on the budget for staffing. However, the officers have gotten “a lot of positive feedback” from the public, who Officer Clark thinks is “excited to see the department willing to embrace the idea of community policing with putting officers in the community that aren’t just relying on enforcement and patrol service.”
The officers have a presence on Arroyo Burro Beach Park (“Hendry’s Beach”) to provide a visible deterrent to crime in the area.
They also walk through parks and up and down the State Street promenade to assist tourists and store owners with their problems.
“Part of our role is to take what we’ve learned in the community from the groups we’ve worked with and bring that back to patrol, to encourage officers and give them the opportunity to go out in the community and see what’s going on, and meet the business owners and residents out there,” Officer Clark said. “Those are the people that are going to spend 10 to 12 hours a day in that area …
“(We hope) to change the perspective of law enforcement as public guardians and less as law enforcers.”