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Retirees take community watch to the next level

As the holiday season approaches, the volunteer citizens patrol with the North Las Vegas Police Department is on high alert. People can make themselves targets with numerous shopping bags and by not paying attention to their surroundings, a volunteer patrol member said.

"They’re an extra set of eyes and ears, especially with the holiday season coming up," North Las Vegas Police Department Spokeswoman Chrissie Coon said of the volunteers.

Volunteers in Police Services (VIPS) are trained by the department in preventing crime and reporting suspicious activity, even though typically the volunteers will not get directly involved.

VIPS Michael Di Bella and Bob Evans’ patrol on the morning of Nov. 9 included checking quiet shopping centers for suspicious activity and vandalism, a park walk-through and directing traffic for more than an hour after an accident on Craig Road. Di Bella, a retired school psychologist and special education coordinator, said there’s a lot of training required to direct the traffic from knowing where to place the cones and set the flares to how to position oneself to be seen at night. Having the extra patrol cars helps, too, Evans added.

"Sometimes (police officers) need these cars more than they need us," Evans said, in reference to clearing a scene. The four patrol cars are reconditioned city police cars without the computer or lights.

"During the holidays, we really concentrate on the business areas," he said. "The general thinking is that … our presence will deter crime."

While on patrol, they use the "JDLR" test, short for "Just Doesn’t Look Right."

Former City Councilman Richard Cherchio helped spearhead the idea when he was on the council and was able to join recently because people didn’t think it was a good idea for him to be a council member and patrol, he said. He plans to run for the council again and said that if he wins, he plans to continue patrolling.

Initially, he said the council was a little reluctant about the patrol group for fear of what it might mean for police officer responsibilities but came around after ironing out concerns about liability.

"I spoke to union leaders and was upfront and clear that this program, however it goes forward, is not to replace those officers," Cherchio said. "It’s just to be the eyes and ears to assist them with what they do. They’re there to assist and take orders."

He would like to see the VIPS’ responsibilities expanded to include ticketing of people parking in handicapped parking spots without proper stickers or tags and patrolling more residential locations if they get more volunteers.

Before it can grow, though, he said the VIPS need to address funding and eventually purchase more vehicles and extend patrolling until midnight.

The group raised $1,700 in its last fundraising effort, but Cherchio said volunteers cannot be expected to walk door-to-door for money on a regular basis.

In the car, the VIPS keep a log of each neighborhood they have patrolled and any places with graffiti or potholes.

"It’s the perfect marriage of getting people involved in their own community and taking ownership and helping businesses," Cherchio said.

And it’s a healthy marriage, according to Coon.

"For us, it’s a huge resource for us to have volunteers that are passionate about the city they live and work in," Coon said.

The program began in December 2010 and continues to expand. Volunteers are not allowed to carry a weapon and are not compensated for their time. They are required to put in at least 12 hours monthly. Of the 26 volunteers, four are women, down from previous years, and commanders serve as organizers on rotation.

Their patrol duties include: patrolling business areas, parks and occasionally residential areas out of the northwest district looking for criminal activity and safety issues and helping to control traffic flow at accident sites or traffic light malfunctions.

Coon said the VIPS’ role directing traffic helps get officers back on patrol while site inspections are completed, sometimes lasting more than six hours.

The VIPS are on-call for traffic issues, which means they could – and do – get calls at 2 a.m. to come out and assist with a traffic scene, Cherchio said.

Coon said the volunteers’ training helps officers streamline responses because if a VIPS member reports something suspicious, it’s likely that it is. The VIPS are trained not to engage in a situation, which is why she said she does not think they are at any more risk than if they were in typical security cars or on HOA patrol. Coon said she does not think the public mistakes the VIPS for police officers.

They also work as extra presence and crowd control at big events such as movies, Safe Halloween and even campaign visits from President Barack Obama.

Training for the watchdog group of mostly retirees includes 32 hours of classroom instruction of department procedures and observation techniques and another 20 hours of supervised behind-the-wheel training in the car.

Volunteers have to work three four-hour shifts each month, be at least 20 years old, hold a valid Nevada driver’s license, pass a background check and attend monthly training.

Contact Centennial and North Las Vegas View reporter Laura Phelps at lphelps@viewnews.com or 702-477-3839.

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