Vol­un­teer ‘COPS’ give neigh­bor­hoods more eyes

Pa­trols

Austin American-Statesman - - METRO & STATE - By Clau­dia Grisales cgrisales@states­man.com

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.”

RALPH BARRERA / AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

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.

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