It’s not about guns and glory for the volunteers of Citizens on Patrol at the Gainesville Police Department; it’s about deterring crime.
Volunteer Sgt. Lon Ligon regularly waves to pedestrians while on patrol. The possibility of a would-be-criminal seeing Ligon before committing a crime may stop one from ever occurring.
“They will drive through and act as a deterrent to look for suspicious activity or suspicious vehicles,” said Officer Justin Torres, crime prevention volunteer coordinator for GPD. “…that’s one area that we don’t have to worry about driving through and it gives us a chance to go to another call.”
The program began in Gainesville in 2010, and Torres was named the volunteer coordinator last October. Torres is working to expand the program this month to more actively help police.
“I want the department to really come to rely on [the COPs] assistance, and to do that we need more,” Torres said.
There are currently 10 active Gainesville COPs, another young man in training and a few more applicants in the background check stage.
Volunteers go through constant training, which Torres is diversifying. The monthly training ranges from how to use communication equipment to how to recognize gang signs and how to react in a crisis.
Robert Scott said he found the opportunity to pick up more responsibility attractive.
Scott is a network engineer for the University of Florida by day and an auxiliary officer for the Gainesville Police Department by night. Before becoming an auxiliary officer last October, he was a volunteer for Citizens on Patrol.
“It beats stamp collecting,” Scott said.
In October 2013, Scott and another COP, Rita Williams, helped rescue a couple lost in Loblolly Nature Park. An officer stayed on the phone with the couple while Scott and Williams, who were more familiar with the woods and trails, went to retrieve the couple and their dog.
“They weren’t in any real danger,” Scott said. “They were just cold and scared.”
Scott and Williams were later named Volunteers of the Year by GPD.
There is no limit to how many volunteers GPD can have. Citrus County with 500 COPs is a program Torres is hoping to emulate in his expansion of Gainesville’s COP program.
According to the 2013 census, there are about 10,000 more people in Citrus County than in Gainesville, but demographics may be behind the difference in volunteers. Citrus County is home to many retirees, while Gainesville has a large student population.
Deputy Andy McEwen, volunteer coordinator for the Citrus County Sheriff’s Office, said he thinks the volunteers enjoy giving back to the community they have been a part of for so many years. Some COPs have just celebrated 30 years of volunteering with the Sheriff’s Office.
According to volunteer data from Independent Sector and McEwen’s estimates, Citrus County’s volunteers contributed more than 76,000 hours to the community last year, which saved more than $1.6 million dollars.
The Citrus County COPs are mainly recruited by word of mouth, McEwen said. In Gainesville, Torres is working to spread the word about volunteer opportunities at crime prevention events hosted by neighborhoods and local organizations. Torres and three other officers attend from about 12 to 16 events a week.
Hopeful COPs must be at least 19 years old and be willing to commit 16 hours a month to patrolling the streets and neighborhoods of Gainesville. Volunteers undergo an extensive background check— the same as a prospective officer.
As defined by Florida statute 943.10-8, an auxiliary law enforcement officer aids or assists a full-time or part-time law enforcement officer while under their direct supervision. Scott has the authority to arrest and “perform other law enforcement functions.”
The way he described being an auxiliary officer was simple.
“Would you rather sit in a car by yourself or have someone with you with a gun?”
His passenger seat shifts are one night a week and can be up to eight hours. The number of hours Scott volunteers has not changed much, just his role.
COPs go where they are needed, with one driving and one monitoring the computer. They are trained to use radios and cellphones to alert officers of suspicious activity.
“[COPs] have just the same chance of coming across that random person as an officer does,” Torres said.
Officers hold briefing meetings about three times a day to determine which areas need to be patrolled, Ligon said.
Ligon said there isn’t a concrete way to measure how effective the COPs are, but he believes there are fewer burglaries in areas that are heavily patrolled.
The possibility of being seen, Ligon said, could stop crimes from happening.
Neighbors and COPs are usually the ones who see burglaries and other crimes in progress. The police come in after a crime has been reported, Ligon said.
“The citizens of Gainesville play a major role in reporting crime,” Ligon said.