Hagerstown Citizens on Patrol take to the streets

August 13, 2011|By KATE S. ALEXANDER |
  • Carol Hann, charter member of Hagerstown Citizens on Patrol, rides along with a Hagerstown police officer and communicates via radio between the officer and other members of Citizens on Patrol.
By Colleen McGrath/Staff Photographer

It's 8:45 p.m. on July 30 and a group of people has just gathered at Fairgrounds Park inside the Police Athletic League building.

They chat and mill about, making certain they have what they need for the night.

After each person is equipped and accounted for, they leave the building in pairs. Piling into four marked cars, the group heads to Hagerstown Police Department headquarters on Burhans Boulevard.

A large decal on the side of each car identifies the occupants as Hagerstown Citizens on Patrol.

Every Friday and Saturday night — and one Wednesday afternoon each month — members of this nonprofit group of volunteers from across the area take to the streets in donated Crown Victorias to look for suspicious activity in Hagerstown.

"Police can't do it all by themselves," Hagerstown Police Department Chief Arthur Smith said. "A cop that thinks they can do it alone is lacking in perspective."

Rarely does a police officer witness a crime, Smith said. With limited human resources, police departments rely on citizens as additional eyes and ears in the community, he said.

In Hagerstown, Citizens on Patrol provides trained eyes as a sort-of auxiliary arm of the police department.

They do so willingly, far from the limelight, wanting little public recognition for their effort.

HPD Officer Ron Isaacs said Citizens on Patrol is crucial to the police department.

"We definitely need them," he said. "We can be tied up with an arrest or other calls and can't get to a particular area, so they are like our second eyes and ears out there."

Busy and quiet nights

It can be a boring job, riding the streets looking for anything out of the ordinary, said Phil Nussear, vice president of Hagerstown Citizens on Patrol.

Sometimes, volunteers see nothing out of the ordinary.

"We're not particularly unhappy when we don't run into anything, don't find anything," he said. "We've developed some great relationships just riding around for four hours talking about things."

On other nights, the patrol is kept busy.

"Generally, you'll find three or four incidents a patrol, not an awful lot," Nussear said. "In particular, not a lot of serious things."

The patrol members keep an eye out for suspicious activity that can include juveniles out after curfew and people in closed parks, to questionable activity on the streets, he said.

Volunteers infrequently observe something significant, although members have interrupted thefts in progress, heard gun shots and reported suspicious people who turned out to have been wanted on outstanding warrants, Nussear said.

"But cars blocking streets, people in parks, open business doors — that's the majority of what we run into," he said.

The mundane nature of their work has created frequent turnover in membership for Citizens on Patrol, Nussear said.

"It's not what people think," he said. "We are not junior cops, and when they find out that what we do is not really that exciting, some drop out."

Working together

When asked if he recalls a memorable incident, Nussear mentions watching a drunk man fall into the lake at City Park.

"It was cold then, too," he said, chuckling at the memory. "October or November, I think."

The group keeps a list of "hot spots" in the city, about 30 high-activity locations that they watch closely. The list includes the parks, banks and businesses, he said.

Those who know that Citizens on Patrol is out on the streets tend to feel more comfortable in the city, Nussear said. And having additional marked vehicles in a neighborhood can deter criminal activity, Isaacs said.

The key to a successful citizens patrol, however, is having a sworn officer, such as Isaacs, along for the ride.

"No citizens group will be successful if you don't have an on-duty police officer assisting," Smith said.

Because it is important that patrol members see the results of their efforts, Smith said he has required that a sworn officer be assigned to each patrol to handle incidents that arise.

Patrol members, as a rule, do not get involved when they observe crime or suspicious activity because that is not their job, he said.

Their job is to report what they see to the command vehicle, where the sworn officer also rides, and move on, he said.

Nussear said patrol members never leave their vehicles while on patrol, except for an occasional stop at Krumpe's Do-Nuts.

When major incidents occur that require a large police response, he said those citizens patrolling will travel in the opposite direction, away from the scene to watch other areas in the city for police.

Getting action

Responding to what the citizens observe is up to the police, Smith said.

Incidents radioed to the patrol's command vehicle get immediate response from the assigned officer or from the officer nearest to the scene, Nussear said.

If patrol members had to add their incidents to the queue at central dispatch, too often their observations would fall low on the priority list, as emergencies take precedence, Smith said.

To ensure that no call is missed on a patrol, the patrol member riding in the command car will conduct a radio check with each Citizens on Patrol vehicle every 30 minutes.

Checking in on Car 5 on July 30, Nussear called out over his radio, "C-O-P command car to Car 5?"

"Car 5's all right," a voice said in response. "Everything's clear up this way."

"C-O-P command car 10-4, Car 5," Nussear replied.

How long the citizens ride the streets each weekend night is up to the command car, said Lee Brierly, president of Hagerstown Citizens Patrol.

On a night with few incidents, those in the command car might choose to end the patrol early, while some nights could last until 1 a.m., he said.

What motivates members of Citizens on Patrol to spend their weekends riding through the streets of Hagerstown when most of the city is in bed often is a sense of civic duty, followed closely by the need for something to do.

"I don't have nothing to do in the evenings, so I figured it would be something good for me to get out and do," Sam Grimes said, crediting his friend Tom Bowers for getting him involved.

Vivian Carroll and Dot Higgins both said they, too, joined as a way to get involved in their community.

"I knew somebody that was in it in another city. I said, 'Oh that sounds interesting,'" Higgins said. "So I checked here and joined up."

Bowers said he saw Officer Gerard Kendle on television asking for members and decided to join.

Seeking members, cars

Nussear said the organization constantly is recruiting and currently has about 35 active members who range in age from their 20s and 30s to retirement.

As a nonprofit, everything from the members' time to gas, equipment and the vehicles have been donated to Hagerstown Citizens on Patrol or acquired with funds raised, Nussear said.

Now that one of its cars is out of commission due to a recent wreck, the organization is seeking donated vehicles.

"We don't need powerful cars," he said. "We need an organization to donate a car to us. We're looking for two cars, actually."

The more cars, the more members that can patrol the streets, he said.

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