Citizen Patrols Partner With Local Police to Cut Crime
Patrolman Paul Smith is on special assignment, cruising through a Delray Beach, Fla., neighborhood where auto thefts have been on the rise. He drives slowly, on the lookout for people or cars that appear out of place in this area of retirees, and also to be seen.
"We drive through problem areas in a very visible way until we drive criminals out," Smith says. "We create a presence that deters crime."
But Smith isn't a police officer. The self-employed sales representative is one of more than 1,000 volunteers in Delray Beach's citizen observer patrols. Trained and equipped by the police department, the volunteers roam the streets in their own cars, and usually in their own neighborhoods, to prevent crimes.
When a volunteer sees suspicious behavior -- for example, a person walking down the street looking into cars -- the volunteer uses a cell phone to contact the police dispatcher, who sends a patrol car.
Often, volunteers also notice burned-out street lights, garage doors left open and other invitations to crime. The citizen patrollers then contact the appropriate city department with an alert.
"In every area of Delray where we have ongoing citizen observer patrols, there has been a 75 percent drop in crime," says Officer Louis Brown, volunteer coordinator for Delray's police. "Every city should have a program like this."
Increasingly, they do and are reporting similar results. From Hawaii to the Flatbush neighborhoods of Brooklyn, police departments are nurturing citizens' police patrols.
Agencies equip their volunteers with radios or cell phones, train them extensively, give them magnetic signs to attach to their cars identifying them as citizen patrols and send them into the streets to be the extra eyes and ears that every police force welcomes but can rarely afford.
"Police officers on patrol are running from one call to the next," says Officer Martin Pfannenstiel, in charge of crime prevention for the Hutchinson, Kan., police force. "We don't have the luxury of time to cruise a neighborhood just to establish a presence and see what's happening. That's what we count on our volunteer patrols to do."
Such an attitude signals a new chapter in citizen-police relations. During the 1980s, citizen patrols often sprang up out of frustration with what residents regarded as police inability to deter crime.
Many departments responded by switching some driving patrols -- which typically race from one emergency to another -- to walking beats, which opened new dialogues between officers and the residents of their patrol areas. As this concept of "community policing" spread across the country, departments became more comfortable with the idea of tapping citizens' eagerness to help. By the early 1990s, as neighborhood-watch programs began to prove less effective as crime deterrents than many had hoped, citizen patrols were catching on nationwide.
According to one explanation, watch groups lost the interest of many residents, after initial rounds of enthusiasm. "Neighborhood watch" signs went up, but there often weren't enough eyes looking out the windows for criminals. In contrast, citizen patrols have encouraged a deeper level of activism, say observers.
Recognizing the growth of citizen patrols, in July 1996 the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association made available 50,000 cell phones and free air time to citizen patrols and neighborhood watches.
But most departments train volunteers to do far more than make phone calls. Instruction often runs to more than 30 hours, during which volunteers learn how to identify suspicious activity and dangerous conditions, how to call the dispatcher and work with uniformed officers and -- just as important -- what they cannot do.
Most programs strictly forbid volunteers to leave their cars or otherwise involve themselves in an event; their mandate is to report incidents or suspicious behavior and call for a patrol car.
"They stress that we're only eyes and ears," says Pat Brown, a five-year veteran of Fort Worth's Citizens On Patrol program. "We're not to confront people, chase cars or get involved in incidents."
"They said it so much that we all got sick of hearing it. But their main objective isn't just to make sure that we're effective, but also that we stay safe."
It seems to work. In Hutchinson, a volunteer spotted a city street sign in a person's garage and notified police, who recovered hundreds of pilfered signs from the location. In Brown's affluent Fort Worth neighborhood, auto thefts dropped by 90 percent after civilian patrols were implemented. In Chicago's 7th police district, crime is down 6.2 percent so far this year. "Our citizens on patrol program is an important component in that reduction," says District Commander Ronald Evans.
None of those departments report logging even one incident in which a civilian volunteer has been attacked or injured while patrolling.
However, volunteer patrol programs do attract the occasional overzealous volunteer who wants to pack a pistol, tail suspicious cars or confront suspects on the sidewalk.
"We had a few problems with people who wanted to get out of their cars and confront suspects," Smith says. "The department got rid of them immediately. They draw a very sharp line between what volunteers do and what police do. If you cross that line, you're gone."
Posted August 11, 1997
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