PUBLIC SAFETY FACILITY — Santa Monica tends to attract a bevy of international tourists each summer, but it’s safe to say that most try to avoid the Public Safety Facility, a relatively new structure that houses the city’s police and fire departments, as well as the jail.

Not Suzanne Birch.

Birch is a community support officer with the South Wales Police force, one of several police agencies that cover the small country on the southwest end of the island of Great Britain.

She spent four days in early September immersed in the Santa Monica Police Department, the first cross-cultural exchange of its kind for local police.

In foreign exchange student fashion, Birch came to learn how SMPD tackles community policing as an agency that makes use of non-sworn officers like herself.

Birch traveled on a grant won from her department for the trip. She spent the better part of six months seeking out an American police agency that she felt she could learn from to improve her performance back home before landing on the SMPD.

“It’s very similar to South Wales,” she said.

Community support officers like Birch are like the Swiss army knives of the force. They’re civilians rather than sworn officers, but they tackle a wide variety of duties, including community presentations, responding to barking dogs and neighbor disputes, and assisting with investigations.

In fact, her position is similar to a cross between what the Santa Monica Police Department calls neighborhood resource officers and community service officers with a liberal dose of crime prevention thrown in.

Over the course of the week, Birch shadowed members of the police department, often arriving early in the morning and leaving after the close of business hours. It left no time for sight-seeing, or even restaurants — Birch was hard-pressed to identify a memorable meal during her time in Santa Monica.

Weather was another story.

“We’ve been having an abysmal summer,” Birch said of her home in Wales. “No sunshine. I would love to work in this kind of climate.”

Lauralee Asch, lead crime prevention coordinator with the SMPD, arranged the schedule with a variety of officers and civilian employees to give Birch a cross section of local police activities and a window into what both women refer to as “quality of life issues.”

Although the department had no precedent for taking on international observers, officers made it happen, Asch said.

“It’s the fact that she’s a police person and so interested in what we’re doing,” Asch said. “We’re always open to sharing ideas. I think it’s always good — they’re doing things that are interesting to us that she could share.”

Crossing international lines can be a positive thing for almost any discipline, and policing is no exception.

Tola Munro, a detective constable with the Gwent Police — also in Wales — participated in a 101-day research trip through a Police Research Fellowship offered by the US-UK Fulbright Commission.

Munro traveled to Washington, D.C., and lived in Montgomery County, Md. where he observed the local police department’s investigations of domestic violence.

“I was struck by the similarities in how they investigate crime, protect vulnerable people and patrol as my own force,” Munro said.

Cross-cultural exchanges increase understanding and they reduce misunderstanding, Munro said.

“I think that anything which broadens our understanding of policing helps,” he said. “It helps get our eyes up from what seems intractable in terms of community issues, and helps us see things from a fresh perspective. There’s frequently nothing new under the sun.”

Birch also noted many similarities between her own work and that of neighborhood resource officers that take care of neighborhood needs in Santa Monica.

On a bright, hot Thursday, Birch and Neighborhood Resource Officer Art Williams coasted through the streets of Santa Monica.

Williams stopped at a street corner east of Lincoln Boulevard to  examine a new piece of graffiti scrawled on the side of a wall that spelled out the name of a local gang.

In his position as a neighborhood resource officer in Sunset Park, Williams has been called on to alert City Hall of graffiti, quell disputes between neighbors and, recently, settle a debate about the number of times police had to deal with a rehabilitation center on Lincoln Boulevard.

Birch is familiar with the breadth of tasks, if not the specifics.

She covers an area of Wales with seven schools, a business district and a shopping center, and is often called on to be the public face of the force in events to handle the public’s questions about policing and crime-prevention talks.

Birch, who entered the force three years ago after a career in her own life management firm, takes the load as a matter of course, although it’s one of the biggest differences between her department and Santa Monica’s.

“We have separate job classifications and more specialists,” Asch said. “My unit deals with neighborhood watch, community problems, community outreach and education, things like that. We have (community service officers) that go to calls and help victims of crime and park rangers that deal with stuff in parks.

“They have one person who does all that.”

Birch did get taken on a bit of a ride, however.

Unlike sworn police officers, community support officers do not act as first responders, meaning they aren’t the ones turning on the lights and sirens to get to a crime scene.

When a call came over the radio about a suspected domestic violence dispute, however, she got a taste … minus the sirens and lights.

Williams parked along the perimeter established by other members of the department as they hunted for a suspect in what they thought was a domestic violence dispute.

Although the search came up empty, it was a bit of excitement Birch hadn’t expected.

“We chose the perfect day!” she said.

Birch headed home Saturday and left in her wake some literature regarding community policing as well as a seed of an idea.

“We could always use a different perspective on how we approach outreach. I’d be more than open to going over there,” Asch joked.

 

ashley@smdp.com