Volunteers in Policing program increasing patrols' capabilities

They are not police officers.

But they drive around in patrol cars supplied by the North Las Vegas Police Department, which have orange lights on top.

They can't arrest you, pull you over or write you a ticket -- yet -- but they'll be watching from afar for any suspicious behavior.

The 13 volunteers are the department's first class of the Volunteers in Policing program, which aims to provide eyes and ears to police by patrolling neighborhoods and businesses. They range from mid-20s through late 70s and began training in December.

Volunteers began patrolling around the department's Northwest Area Command, 3755 W. Washburn Road, in mid-March. They'll stay there for now, but plans to expand the program throughout the city are in the works.

"If they see something suspicious, they'll keep an eye on it," said Capt. Frank DeMartino. "They have the ability to call dispatch to tell them what's going on, then dispatch would send a patrol vehicle to check it out."

Volunteers sign up for the shifts they want through an online calendar. Designated shifts are from 8 a.m. to noon and noon to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. They always travel with a partner when out on patrol.

Their uniforms are dark gray polo shirts that have the North Las Vegas police badge embroidered on them and the words "Citizen Patrol" underneath, which are supplied by the department. The volunteers are responsible for buying black cargo pants.

"The citizen patrol is mostly for visibility and deterrence," DeMartino said. "We had an incident where my guys were following a known car burglar in a parking lot. They were watching him, and one of our citizen patrol units pulled in there. He took off. It works."

Similar programs are used in police departments in Las Vegas and Henderson, DeMartino added.

Volunteers must be 21 years old and live in the area. They must go through a background check, be fingerprinted and fill out an application. Once they pass a background check, DeMartino conducts an interview with the applicants to find out more about their qualifications. No law enforcement experience is required for the 16-week course.

Volunteer Harold Johnson said police trained him not to jump the gun on calling in to dispatch.

"We're not taking anything away from police officers," said Johnson, who has been volunteering with the department in various groups since 2000. "We're enhancing the department. We're taught that when we see something that doesn't feel right, to step back and watch for a couple of minutes just to make sure that's what it is and not something innocent."

And if they hear certain police codes, such as a fight or gunfire, they need to turn around and go in the opposite direction, Johnson added.

"The city's not spending money it doesn't have," he said. "Everything we want to do is on us."

The four white patrol cars the volunteers use are refurbished units the department didn't use anymore. Fuel and insurance costs for the vehicles are covered by the city. Vehicles won't be on the highways. They're strictly neighborhood patrol cars.

If volunteers get hurt while they're in the vehicle, they're covered by a workers' compensation plan.

"I get a type of satisfaction knowing I'm doing what I can to help," Johnson said. "By doing this, I can give something back and help police officers, so they won't be pulled off from taking care of things."

State law gives the police department the authority to use volunteers in certain community policing programs. Volunteers have the authority to set up cones and help direct traffic through accident scenes. Members of the citizen patrol also can call in graffiti, downed stop signs and street lights that are out as part of a beautification process, too.

Councilman Richard Cherchio helped spearhead the program, which he said aims to instill a sense of community ownership.

"The volunteer program is there to supplement and assist our police department, not to operate in lieu of them," Cherchio said. "The economy and the shortage of officers out there made it, to some degree, appealing. But it never was, and in my mind it still never is, to replace police officers. It's getting that presence back on the street."

The department is seeking 20 more applications for its next volunteer class. For more information, visit cityofnorthlasvegas.com/Departments/Police/Police.shtm, click on "Volunteer Interest Card" and check the "Citizen's Patrol " box.

Contact Downtown and North Las Vegas View reporter Kristi Jourdan at kjourdan@viewnews.com or 383-0492.


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