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Troy L. Wheeler

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Strategy: Citizen Volunteers To Prevent Crime

Strategy This strategy employs using trained citizen volunteers to report suspicious activity and provide uniformed presence in areas where . . .

Strategy

This strategy employs using trained citizen volunteers to report suspicious activity and provide uniformed presence in areas where police are not deployed.

Community Problem Addressed

Understaffed police departments in many small cities find it difficult to patrol residential areas with the frequency residents prefer. Using trained citizen volunteers as the "eyes and ears" for the police department can help reduce crime and the potential for crime in these areas. It also helps expand communication between residents and the police.

Key Components

Community-based neighborhood organizations are often a ready source of active citizens who can be recruited to become involved in crime prevention. Recruits interested in helping lower crime in their communities participate in police-run training sessions where proper radio procedures, investigative processes, and first aid are taught, and the importance of personal and community safety measures is emphasized. Once trained, these unarmed citizens patrol areas where high incidences of nonviolent property crime have been noticed, reporting to law enforcement suspicious activity and helping to investigate any complaints from merchants and citizens by gathering information on the offense and descriptions of possible suspects. Patrol members contact residential owners and keep them up to date on any crime trends or safety concerns in the community.

Key Partnerships

An active community policing and/or crime prevention program in the local sheriff's office or police department is vital to the success of this strategy. Officers must be willing to attend community meetings to recruit active and willing volunteers, and the city or town must make a commitment to the initial and follow-up trainings of the citizen volunteers. Local businesses, especially those that will benefit from less crime in a specific area, can be a source of support for purchasing uniforms and as active members of the patrol. Membership fees could be levied to make this strategy self-funded; community policing resources from the local budget, the federal government, or the state often provide support for the staff time of the law enforcement personnel.

Potential Obstacles

One obstacle to this strategy may be that the local law enforcement agency does not want to commit staff to support and supervise volunteers. Law enforcement agencies seeking to use volunteers must commit to a partnership with the community to make the program work. They must dedicate or leverage the staff time and other resources to train, oversee, and equip patrol members. To sustain members' motivation to participate, they must respond to information gathered by the patrols and recognize the contribution of members when their efforts help solve crimes and enhance the perception of safety in neighborhoods and business areas. Citizens must feel safe acting as volunteers and also must feel as though their work is making a difference. Recruited volunteers must be supervised to ensure they report for scheduled shifts. Encouragement from the city government, the police department, and local merchants can help to provide citizens with the equipment, training, and other support needed to sustain the volunteer program.

Background checks should be done on the volunteers to ensure none have a criminal record. Patrol members must also be instructed not to carry or use weapons while on duty. Local law enforcement should also work with the city's legal staff to define patrol members' duties and qualifications so that they do not conflict with local legal guidelines and liability concerns.

Examples of Success and Results

Moore Haven, Florida [population 17,000], started their Citizens Observer Patrol (COP) in 1996.  Problems at area boat ramps that were unpatrolled because of short staffing led the Glades County Sheriff's Office to look for citizen volunteers to patrol the areas. After being trained in a three-week academy held at the sheriff's office, the volunteers from the community were mobilized into stations and given patrol cars and uniforms donated by a local t-shirt company.

Since the implementation of the program, the incidence of property crime has decreased more than 70 percent. Burglary and theft near the boat launches has been almost eliminated. There have been no further reports of grand theft auto, and the number of juvenile delinquency cases has fallen. Residents report to police that they feel safer. Since patrols started, residents once again picnic and walk along the water at night.

The Citizens on Patrol (COP) program in Meridian, Idaho [population 36,000], began in 1994 because the police department wanted to make sure that the lines of communication were strong between residents and the department in this community whose population has more than tripled since 1990. After participating in a department-sponsored academy, volunteers are scheduled on Friday and Saturday evenings to patrol subdivisions and problem areas in the city. The volunteers are instructed not to confront situations, but instead to report them to officers using the cellular phones and police radios they are equipped with.

While the city has never had a high crime rate, the department credits the COP program with helping to maintain the small-town quality of life enjoyed by this quickly growing community. COP is a nonprofit agency that raises money to pay for materials, such as its patrol bags, spotlights, and night vision glasses. Local businesses who benefit from the presence of the volunteers during the night hours also donate equipment.

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