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Citizens on Patrol brings community into policing

April 09, 2005|by PEPPER BALLARD

Editor's Note: The real name of a man involved in Citizens on Patrol is not being used because of concerns of possible retribution if his identity was made public.




pepperb@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - It's Saturday night. Do you know where your neighbors are?

When a cell phone rang in a disco tone on a recent Saturday night in the back seat of a police Jeep Cherokee, a retired correctional officer answered the call, leaned in toward the driver, a uniformed police detective, and announced, "We've got one."

The retired correctional officer, the owner of a small business, a city employee and a store manager, among other city and county residents, are Citizens on Patrol, a group similar to a neighborhood watch, formed through the Hagerstown Police Department last summer. Members of the patrol cruise downtown a few nights a week looking for crime from their cars' seats.

Each citizen car on patrol is identified by a white, lighted sign, similar to a taxi or pizza sign. The sign, with Citizens on Patrol (COP) written across it, is mounted on the roof of each car.

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Sgt. Tim Wolford said the group, which began patrolling in August and was incorporated in December, is seeking nonprofit status to raise money for equipment and other amenities. Those in the program were trained on how to report suspicious activity and avoid getting too close to it.

"They're trained not to become involved directly," Wolford said.

Before the COP members left for their patrol on this night, Wolford told them at Hagerstown Police Department headquarters to watch for a few suspicious cars, which he described, providing the tag numbers, and told them of some suspicious activity reported of which they should be aware in the COP-designated area.

Once COP members left headquarters for their respective vehicles, the retired correctional officer, "Ed," acted in the capacity of a dispatcher. Sitting with a clipboard on his lap in the back seat of the white jeep, Ed took calls from his COP counterparts, who were using cell phones to call him and report suspicious activity. The other COP members spotted such activity from their cars during patrols in different areas of their designated coverage area.

Detective Casey Yonkers, who normally wears business suits to work, donned a police uniform this night. Yonkers drove the police Jeep and had the discretion to either respond to a call from a COP member himself or call for backup from another police officer.

"He's kind of like the filter between the citizens and the actual department," Wolford said.

About an hour into their patrol, during which Yonkers admonished a young boy for not wearing his bicycle helmet, Ed got a call from a cohort that a man was seen hitting telephone poles with a baseball bat in the area of the Baltimore Street Station Car Wash. Yonkers drove around the car wash only to find an older man with a cane.

As he was driving around the property, another call came in with a better description of where the man, described as wearing a Baltimore Ravens jersey, was headed.

"They're hyped. They're saying he's running, he's running," Ed said after ending the call.

After pulling into an alley, a youth fitting the description of the alleged vandal was spotted, lazily extending the bat out to his side, bumping it against fence posts and light poles, headed toward the rear of The Video Store, an adult bookstore at 23 E. Washington St.

When Yonkers got out of the car, the boy slowly turned around and said, "What did I do." The boy's lips began to pout and his eyes welled with tears.

After being asked to hold his hands up, the youth, who said he was 13, nervously held them limply near his shoulders. Yonkers took down some information, asked for his parents' phone number (the youth said they didn't have a phone), took the baseball bat that the boy said he found in an alley and sent him on his way.

If nothing else, Yonkers said, the information he gathered about the boy might come in handy if someone in the area should report damage to their property near where the boy was seen.

Acting on tips from COP members, Yonkers later checked out an area off an alley where a homeless man reportedly was seen making a bed in an abandoned Volkswagen bus, but didn't find anything.

He also pulled over a car, which appeared to recently be involved in an accident because its rear bumper was nearly dragging on the street. That, too, didn't yield anything.

But after about three hours of patrol, a couple of COP members spotted a possible drunken driver. The COP members, who were trailing the suspicious navy blue utility truck, pulled off to the side of the street as Yonkers slowly drove up behind the utility truck.

When the truck failed to stop at a red light on West Washington Street and slowly moved into the middle of the street, Yonkers put on the Jeep's flashing police lights. The driver disregarded the police lights and turned left onto Jonathan Street, where he was stopped for another traffic light at Jonathan and West Franklin streets.

When the truck pulled through that green light, Yonkers flashed his police lights again. The truck swerved, jumped a curb and then, after returning to the street, slowly pulled into a parking lot.

After some questioning by Yonkers, a smiling middle-aged man got out of the truck. After undergoing a series of tests, the man, who was curling his fingers and having trouble standing straight, was asked to walk toward Yonkers. He stuck one foot out and then fell forward, grinning. Yonkers placed him under arrest, and another officer who responded to the scene drove the man away in his cruiser.

That arrest ended Yonkers' patrol that night because he had to go back to headquarters and fill out paperwork.

Wolford said COP members have been responsible for drunken driving and drug arrests, street racing arrests and the issuance of traffic and safety violations, among others.

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