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Citizen patrol keeps watch on city

July 22, 2007|By BOB MAGINNIS

We arrived at the Hagerstown Police Department headquarters on Burhans Boulevard shortly before 9 p.m. on Saturday, July 14, to begin a four-hour stint as volunteers for Citizens On Patrol.

The organization is the brainchild of HPD Chief Arthur Smith, who did something similar in his days in Baltimore. In a 2002 interview, Smith told me that the problem with most neighborhood watch programs is that after spending hours patrolling the streets watching for suspicious activity, citizens then have to wait 20 minutes to half an hour for police to respond.

Not surprisingly, this frustrates watch members and people drop out. Smith's new twist was to dedicate one officer to respond to watch members' calls, so that citizens who ride can see results almost immediately.

Citizens are prohibited from leaving vehicles to interfere in whatever unlawful activity seems to be taking place. Doing that merits an automatic ejection from the group.

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It took a bit longer than usual to get the group going here, according to Vicki Bodnar, the group's president, because no one wanted to ride in his own vehicle. And so they convinced the Washington County government to donate some old sheriff's cruisers, which were reconditioned for the program.

Chief Smith said the delay here was due in part to the fact that, unlike in Baltimore, there was no sponsoring organization from which to draw volunteers.

Topped off with Citizens On Patrol lights that resemble what you see on taxicabs, several vehicles can patrol at any one time, depending on whether there are enough volunteers.

Smith praised the Washington County Technical High School students who rehabilitated the cars and the volunteers, for all of the hours they've put in.

"There have been a lot of calls," Smith said.

The command car carries one officer and one volunteer, while the other cars carry two volunteers each. Except, of course, for the car I'm riding in, which also includes Mayor Robert Bruchey behind the wheel and civic activist Ted Bodnar in the shotgun seat.

The night begins with a short briefing and introductions, although no one except the Bodnars is too keen on having their names used in my column.

HPD Officer D. Hay comes in and tells the group that the incidents that have taken place include a rear tag stolen from a GMC truck in the 400 block of North Potomac Street, an assault at Fairgrounds Park (for which few details are available) and some vandalism in the 7800 block of Security Road, where a window was broken and some paint sprayed.

Bruchey, who grew up in the city's West End, tells us he knows every street and alley in the city. In the next four hours we will cover them, some twice.

As we leave the station, we head down Church Street to Jonathan Street and then North Street and finally past Wheaton Park, where fewer than a dozen people are playing on the lighted basketball courts.

Then we head north onto Woodland Way, where there is a county park where Bruchey says people sometimes congregate. Not tonight, however. We then stop at Mills Park, where there is a lone car with a couple inside in the parking lot. Bodnar tells Bruchey to call it in, but the mayor notes that the city's parks don't close until 10 p.m.

"They should get a room," Bodnar jokes.

Our car heads up West Irvin Avenue, then Wayne, Glenwood and Fairchild avenues, where the streets are mostly deserted. Then there's a call of a hit-and-run at 93 Manor Drive and Bruchey swings by in time to see an officer and a motorist inspecting damage to a car's rear bumper.

Bodnar said volunteers put 50 miles a night on a car, but because there are only about 25 volunteers, all the cars can't go out every night. Ideally, he said, there would be enough participating so that no one would have to ride more than a single shift each month, Bodnar said.

Neither man could identify a major crime that the organization had identified, although Bodnar said that one night after they turned in a report of one man on top of another in the middle of Locust Street, it turned out to be an officer of the city's Street Crimes Unit making an arrest.

"I think it's more of a deterrent for people. If you're in an area, they know there's extra eyes out there looking around," Bruchey said.

The biggest call of the night came as a result of a neighbor's complaint about loud music at a party on Mulberry Street. We stop by and see police talking to party-goers, but the music hardly seems too loud.

"It's not even 11 o'clock on a Saturday night," Bruchey said.

It is so quiet on the streets that I suggest that there might be a crooks' convention in Frederick that night. Bruchey stops on South Potomac Street to talk to police watching the club patrons go in and out of Duffy's on South Potomac. Other than a woman who seems to be having an argument with her boyfriend, everyone seems well-behaved.

Bruchey drives into the South Potomac Street parking deck, so he can look down on Duffy's rooftop lounge. Again, everyone seems to be having a good time, but not a screaming, out-of-control good time.

After four hours of this, the dispatcher calls the group in at about 12:40 p.m. Bruchey is slightly irritated, noting that the shift was supposed to go on until 1 a.m. He calls in, asks for a time check, but doesn't make the point that the shift is ending early.

For all that we saw, it could have ended at midnight, but to Bruchey, Bodnar and company, a promise is a promise and they pledged to ride until 1 a.m. If you're interested in becoming a volunteer - a background check is required - call 301-790-3700 and ask for Chief Smith's office.

Bob Maginnis is

editorial page editor of

The Herald-Mail newspapers

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