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Investment in Success: Cuesta College Public Safety Officers

by Bryan Millard, Cuesta College Chief of Police

My passion for a career in law enforcement and public service drew me to this job.” 
– Public Safety Officer Michael Jantzen, CCPD

I began my law enforcement career path as a student worker at a college police department nearly 20 years ago, at a time when I was not sure about my career goals. That fact is more poignant now, as I enter my fourth year as a college police chief and oversee student workers who are, hopefully, starting their own journey into the law enforcement profession.  At some point during those early college years, my shifts ceased to be a job and became a career passion. When I consider the future of our student employees, each with different motivations and goals, I am compelled to think about this past experience. What was it that inspired me to take the leap into the police academy?

How can our department proactively encourage and mentor a similar transition to law enforcement or public service with our newest and brightest college students?  

 The Cuesta College Police Department (CCPD) in San Luis Obispo, California, is where I am privileged to serve in a state-certified law enforcement agency employing sworn police officers, civilian professional staff, and a varying number of part-time student workers in the role of public safety officer.  We provide for the safe learning environment of a community college population of about 9,000 students and staff, spread across two campuses. Like other college-based police departments, we combine traditional police work with other non-traditional duties in order to serve the college district’s needs. This includes parking management, emergency preparation, and campus telecommunications among many “other duties as assigned.” Without our student public safety officers (PSOs), CCPD would not function effectively or provide the service on which our department prides itself. 

Student workers are critically linked to the success of our department. 
The PSOs are eager to share concerns and priorities of students…They are the eyes, ears, and voices of our student community.”
– Officer Alison Herson, CCPD 

Our PSOs work up to 20 hours a week fulfilling a variety of job duties as their school schedule allows.  PSOs are currently paid the California minimum wage of $12 per hour, which is scheduled for an increase to $13 per hour in January of 2020. PSO assignments include student escorts, vehicle jumpstarts, room unlocks, and many other tasks. As you might assume, the primary focus for our students is parking enforcement on-campus parking lots. It is a duty that admittedly comes with a risk of confrontation with those on our campus who receive parking citations. That risk must be mitigated through coaching in the tactics of verbal de-escalation and responses to confrontational behavior. 

To better prepare our student employees this school year, we held our first full-day scenario training this fall. Based on methods used for police academy scenarios, it exposed our PSOs to realistically stressful situations they may encounter in the field. We found the outcomes to be entirely worth the effort in manpower and logistics needed to put on the training day. Our PSOs learned valuable lessons about maintaining a safe distance, knowing when to call for help, and de-escalating confrontations through verbal and listening strategies. I hope our employees never need these specific skills, but I am more confident in their ability to respond appropriately should they ever need to.   

A positive side benefit from the training was the increased bond between our student employees and the officers who evaluated them and served as role players.  I can already see a tangible benefit to the team relationships in the department as a direct result.

Recruitment

The Cuesta College Police Department, January 2019. “Without our student public safety officers, CCPD would not function effectively or provide the service on which our department prides itself,” Chief Millard says. CREDIT: Ritchie Bermudez, associate director of marketing, Cuesta CollegeThe success of our PSO program depends on finding and hiring quality women and men who fit within our police department, which is admittedly a challenging process in today’s law enforcement climate. A good portion of our candidates is word-of-mouth referrals from other PSOs.  Our current PSOs know the duties and rigor of the position better than anyone, and in the end, they are the ones working together as partners. Having proven and experienced PSOs involved in the recruiting process is imperative. These veterans are scheduled at “welcome back” events on our campuses at the beginning of the semester, in order to market the department, our programs, and hopefully encourage future applicants to the PSO program. This allows new students to see themselves in the PSO they hope to become. The veteran PSO can also answer questions in a way that only another current student can relate to.

Another good source of PSO candidates is our on-campus criminal justice (CJ) program.   Our department maintains good relationships with our CJ instructors, who often promote our job openings during their classes or refer students whom they know may be a good fit. This allows students who are already focused on the law enforcement field to have a direct pathway to our department to help further their career goals. These CJ students often arrive at our department with valuable background experiences such as police explorers or a cadet program, but no law enforcement experience is necessary to apply. After all, I did not have any when I started!  

The final piece of our recruitment triangle comes from our active presence on social media. Our department maintains a vibrant presence on several platforms: Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Our social media presence serves not only as an outreach tool to our community but as a window into the culture of our department. We feature our student PSOs and department life frequently, which helps bolster the program’s success in the eyes of our campus community. These social media pages are marketed heavily during student and parent orientations in the hopes of drawing students as followers and potential PSO applicants.

 PSO candidates submit a resume and are brought in for structured interviews with our police sergeant and senior officer, who serves as the PSO Program Supervisor. It is helpful that both the sergeant and senior officer are former PSOs with the department, making them specifically qualified to evaluate successful student employees. Once hired, properly training our new public safety officers becomes critically important.  This has been a work in progress over the past few years and is still under development.  

Training

The original design of the PSO training was modeled directly from the Officer’s Field Training Program, including different phases and expansive evaluations. While this training works well for a full-time police officer, it is less effective for a part-time employee working only a few hours each week, who may be with the department for only one or two years. As a result, it was never fully implemented.  Recently, we modified PSO training to reduce the overall length and structure of the program while maintaining the basic tenets, including orientation training and on-the-job shadowing of a veteran PSO.  

The length and breadth of the training are at the discretion of the senior officer.   He meets one-on-one with all PSOs and evaluates their performance based on observations and input from the veteran PSOs to whom the newest are assigned.  The senior officer also gives PSOs written expectations at the beginning of their employment and refresher sessions each semester. These expectations are reinforced by the chief as an adaptation of the “chief’s interview,” which is more about imparting the mission, vision, and values of our department.  It also gives me the opportunity to get to know the PSOs personally and share with them some of my journey from student worker to the law enforcement executive. 

Career Mentorship 

Our department recently held a strategic planning workshop, which featured most personnel, including a student PSO representative. It was important that all voices contributed to our department’s future. As expected, one of the major topics discussed was the development of the PSO program. Our department has a proud tradition of PSO service to our campuses. More than 50 of our PSOs have gone on to successful careers in law enforcement and fire service. 

In fact, one of those alumni is now a partner police chief in our county.

PSOs are an integral part of our identity as a law enforcement agency. 

It really helped to see others making the transition from PSO to police officers before you. It really helped motivate me.” -  Officer (and former PSO) Guadalupe Lopez, CCPD

Members of the Cuesta College PD raise money for breast cancer research. In 2020, CCPD will codify a formal mentorship program for PSOs, to be developed by one of our officers. Although still in its infancy, some aspects of this program have taken shape.  In the spring, we will hold a mock hiring process for all PSOs. They will submit a resume, cover letter, and application for a job they may choose to pursue in their future. A chosen panel of our department employees will evaluate these application packets and bring them in for oral board interviews. It is our hope that this learning process will strengthen their ability to succeed in the job market after their college and PSO experience, whether in the law enforcement sector or not.          

As our department looks ahead, including the future of the PSO program, it is imperative we strike a careful balance between the current duties of the job and the responsibility to prepare the future generation of law enforcement officers that these students represent. The job duties of the PSO are not glamorous but important to the daily operation of our department and the campus. We explain to PSOs that these duties—incorporating parking enforcement, student escorts, vehicle jumpstarts, room unlocks, and many other tasks—are important for the PSOs to complete so that our campus police officers can focus on the bigger picture of campus safety. These duties are necessary, but is that all there is for our PSOs?   

One of the best things about being a PSO is that it allows me to get hands-on experience…” 
Public Safety Officer Wyatt George, CCPD

I remember my own experience as a police department student worker. Many of the duties I performed were tedious, thankless, and seemingly unimportant. Sometimes, however, during those “in-between” moments, officers would share their time and perspective with me on the law enforcement profession and their role as police officers. They offered encouragement, advice, and a critical word or two when the need arose. It was the total of those experiences that undoubtedly started me on a path to a successful law enforcement career. Any success I have is attributable to their example and mentorship along the way.  

It is with this perspective that CCPD focuses forward on the future of our own student employees, who quietly thirst for mentorship in their own search for career direction and satisfaction. It should be noted that four of our sworn officers were once PSOs in the department, including two of the supervisory team. That is a success story that proves the long-term return-on-investment we make in our student workforce today.



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