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The Gray Patrol : Their Fingers May Be a Little Stiff but They're Nimble Enough to Write Tickets--Lots of Them

March 05, 1988|A. DAHLEEN GLANTON | Times Staff Writer

They spend their day cruising the streets of San Clemente in a marked patrol car, looking for parking violators, expired license plates and abandoned cars.

They are easily recognizable in their crisp blue uniforms and shiny badges. But don't mistake them for real police officers. They are senior citizens--and the only weapon they carry is a two-way radio.

Don't let their gray hair fool you, either. This tough squad of law enforcers has declared war on graffiti, on motorists who park illegally in handicapped zones and on drivers who fail to renew their vehicle registration on time. Few in this coastal city of 35,000 residents dare to violate even the tiniest of laws when this crew is on duty.

Twenty-one men and women ranging from their mid-50s to late 70s participate in the San Clemente Police Department's Retired Senior Volunteer Program (R.S.V.P.), which began in 1985 at a time the Police Department was suffering a severe budget crunch.

"We had to come up with innovative ways to maintain service to the community. We now have volunteers doing some duties sworn officers once did," said Lt. Steve Bernardi, who administers the program for the Police Department. "And it has helped us maintain services that we otherwise would not have been able to (provide).

"We look for retired seniors who are active and still have a lot to give to the community," Bernardi said. "They live in the community and care about the community, and they are real eager and enthusiastic about it."

The volunteer program was patterned loosely after one in Ventura County. But in San Clemente, it is affiliated with the Volunteer Center of South Orange County, which operates a chapter of the nationwide R.S.V.P organization.

The Police Department budgets $5,000 a year for the program, and the R.S.V.P. chapter, which is based in Santa Ana, provides insurance coverage and reimbursements for some expenses incurred by the volunteers on the job.

"We do things the police officers should be doing but don't have time to do. They've got more important things to do, so we fill in the little corners," said Leon Aldrich, 72, one of the original members of the group. "It's nothing spectacular, but it protects the citizens."

In the course of a day, these seniors may issue more than 50 traffic citations. They also check homes while residents are away on vacation, rescue children from locked cars and visit elderly people who live alone--jobs the 46 police officers rarely have time for.

Some of the volunteers work in clerical positions in the department's records section or in the crime prevention unit.

All the volunteers work at least one six-hour shift a week, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Since the program began, they have volunteered more than 11,000 hours of service. That represents savings of more than $300,000 when computed on an average police officer's salary, Bernardi said.

During one recent shift, Peggy Bradfield and her partner, Bill Walsh--the group's coordinator--visited elderly residents in San Clemente, a service they perform daily. It wasn't much more than sitting and chatting, but the 10-minute visit meant a lot to 80-year-old Maxine Dean.

"There aren't many places where police take interest in the elderly," said Dean, who was recovering from a recent fall. "I live alone, and I look forward to these visits. I am very grateful that they call me every day and come to see me."

The R.S.V.P. members are dedicated, hard-working super-achievers, people who never considered retiring to a life of mediocrity or boredom.

Bradfield, 63, was a collection investigator for Los Angeles County for 16 years. Three years before retiring, she worked eight to 10 hours a day as a division chief. She moved to San Clemente two years ago so she could be near the ocean, but she never intended to stop working.

"I've seen so many people retire and what do they do?" she asked. "It's the greatest feeling in the world to volunteer. I don't want to work for money. After all those years I had to be there, it's good to know you don't have to anymore."

Only the fittest and the most dedicated need apply for the job. Each applicant undergoes thorough medical and security screenings and must pass a defensive driving test. More important, they must have a pleasant personality and get along well with others.

"We're not looking for any gung-ho types. We want people who are cool and level-headed," said Walsh, 63, a former Burbank elementary school principal. "We once turned down an 80-year-old because he was too opinionated. We felt he might end up in a confrontation and wouldn't benefit himself, the community or our group."

That's one of the first things they learn: avoid confrontation. Since they don't carry guns, these senior citizens are instructed to stay away from potentially dangerous situations and to radio for assistance if they run into trouble. But sometimes confrontations do occur.

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