Volunteer ‘COPS’ give neighborhoods more eyes
On one recent morning, Margo Ball and her partner drove their Travis County sheriff’s vehicle, clocking about 20 mph, as they closely surveyed homes along a street in the Shady Hollow neighborhood in Southwest Austin.
From afar, it’s hard to tell that Ball and her partner, H. “Hans” Mertens, aren’t fullfledged sheriff’s deputies in a patrol car.
Instead, Ball and Mertens are retirees who volunteer for the sheriff’s office’s Citizens on Patrol Services program.
“I wanted to give back to the community and be an extra set of eyes and ears,” says Ball, a 74-year-old homemaker who wears a patrol services uniform similar to the brown and khaki uniform deputies wear.
Volunteers can join the 5-year-old program, which has about three dozen members, after graduating from the 13week Citizen Academy and participating in additional training.
Volunteers might go on patrols anywhere from once a week to once a month, Ball says. In her and Mertens’ case, since they are retired, they are able to go out twice a week on a regular basis. Others might come in on a weekend as their work schedules allow, she said.
The group has recruited other citizen academy graduates to join the patrol program, performed ride-alongs with sheriff’s deputies and helped patrol neighborhoods in the program’s lone vehicle, a retired patrol car with amber lights and signs that read “Citizens on Patrol Services” or “COPS.”
While on patrol, the volunteers spend their time looking for suspicious activity in areas of the county that have seen an increase in crime or other issues that require additional patrols. Reports are often called in with the volunteers’ dispatch radios.
Volunteers are trained in skills such as how to help report a suspicious vehicle and how to identify gang signs and graffiti tags, said sheriff’s office Senior Deputy Vincente Galloway, who helps coordinate the program.
Volunteers also are required to have some first-aid training and to carry digital cameras to document activity. They do not carry weapons and are forbidden from confronting any suspects.
“They are trained on how to use a radio, they are trained on 10-codes and various observations skills,” Galloway says. “They are non-confrontational. They are merely there for observation and reporting purposes only.”
In Ball’s case, she’s seen the impact of their work up close. In May 2011, she and Mertens were patrolling the Granada Hills area following reports of increased crime. The two hung fliers on residents’ doors warning them to take precautions and safeguard their homes.
Shortly after their patrols, a local newspaper documented the crime rate in the subdivision dropped by 5 percent, she said. Observed spikes in neighborhood crime, or other public safety concerns, often will draw the volunteer patrols.
Ball and Mertens recently patrolled in the Cuernavaca and Apache Shores areas after hearing of problems with dogs wandering loose. There, the two put word out to residents to keep their dogs on a leash.
Ball is a good example of the range of volunteers who participate in the program, Galloway says.
“Eighteen and above, any age,” you can participate, he says. “You can be 95 as long as you have a good driving record.”
Margo Ball and partner H. ‘Hans’ Mertens participate in the Travis County Sheriff’s Office’s Citizens on Patrol Services program. The duo, here in Steiner Ranch in Northwest Austin, patrol neighborhoods two days a week to help cut crime.
Ethel Wright, who is raising her four grandchildren, was surprised by the gift of a van. She needs help with child care, since she can only work when (clockwise from top) Ja’Rai, Virgil ‘Petey,’ Michael and Mahkia Foster are at school.