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Police Volunteers Roll Against Crime

January 25, 1990|MIKE WARD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

POMONA — Darwin Tuttle, a retired real estate broker, maneuvers the squad car slowly through a tough neighborhood in Pomona's west end. It is dark outside, and all around him are rows of houses with barred windows and front yards protected by chain-link fences.

"Pomona was beautiful when I came here in 1952," Tuttle said. "You could smell the orange blossoms in the morning."

But that was 38 years ago. Now Tuttle, at the age of 70, is behind the wheel of a police cruiser driving through a neighborhood where crime is about as common as citrus trees were in the 1940s.

He is one of nine volunteers who have joined the Police Department's new Citizen Volunteer Patrol. The patrol, which made its first rounds last week, is a souped-up, higher-tech cousin to Neighborhood Watch.

The department has painted two of its former patrol cars white and reserved them for use by volunteers who, unescorted by police officers, cruise the city looking for suspicious incidents to report over their car radios.

"We're supposed to be the eyes and the ears of the Police Department," Tuttle said.

On four hours of patrol one night last week, Tuttle drove up and down Mission Boulevard and Holt Avenue and through high-crime residential neighborhoods but found nothing worth relaying to the police. Maybe it's too cold for criminals to be out, Tuttle said.

Tuttle said another recent evening of patrol was more productive. He and a partner spotted a van weaving along Mission Boulevard. They radioed for a regular police unit and followed the van themselves until police caught up.

The van driver "was drunk as a goose," Tuttle said. By getting the driver off the road, "I think we may have saved somebody's life."

The volunteers wear tan uniforms, make their rounds unarmed and have no power to make arrests. Their patrol vehicles do not have red lights or sirens but are equipped with the sort of blinking yellow lights that are mounted on the top of road maintenance vehicles. If a major crime occurs while they are on patrol, volunteers have been told that their first, and perhaps only, assignment will be to stay out of the way.

Nevertheless, police say, they are hoping that the Citizen Volunteer Patrol can make a difference in the fight against crime. The department plans to expand the program to 100 volunteers or more.

One of the patrol's missions is psychological warfare. Police say that putting more cars with police emblems on the street discourages crime even if the cars don't contain regular officers.

Sgt. Joe Romero, who trains the volunteers, said a citizens patrol unit drove prostitutes away from one area one day by simply parking there.

One of the program's controversial elements is a plan by Interim Police Chief Kelson McDaniel to equip patrol members with video cameras so they can openly record street transactions by drug dealers and prostitutes. He said cameras could push some of the trade out of town.

"A drug dealer does not want to perform his transaction in the presence of witnesses," he said.

He dismissed suggestions that playing cameraman could be risky to a volunteer under the circumstances. "There will be two or three (volunteers) there. I think there is a great deal of safety in numbers," McDaniel said, adding that patrol members are instructed to avoid confrontations.

Romero said volunteers follow the rule that "when a dog is snarling at you, you don't try to pet it."

He said that the use of video cameras is being approached cautiously, not only because of the risk of confrontations, but also because police are aware that the cameras could be seen by some people as unwelcome surveillance by a "Big Brother" government.

Robert Trojanowicz, director of the National Center for Community Policing at Michigan State University, said residents have discouraged drug dealing in some cities by snapping pictures of license plates of customers who drive up to buy drugs. Often, he said, there isn't any film in the camera, but the act of appearing to take pictures scares away customers.

Such activities must be supervised by police to avoid confrontations and to safeguard constitutional rights, Trojanowicz said, but can work to push drug dealers out of an area. "Unfortunately, drug dealing has gotten so far out of hand that unconventional methods have to be used," he said.

A number of cities have community volunteers who assist the police, but most use the volunteers for more routine tasks than the sort of heavy patroling envisioned in Pomona.

In Claremont, Capt. Russ Brown said the Police Department began a Retired Senior Volunteer Patrol five years ago. The program involves 15 people, 60 and older, who keep tabs on houses while residents are on vacation, run errands, direct traffic, patrol commercial areas, and issue citations to people who illegally park in handicapped spaces. Members also have taken part in low-risk surveillance operations, he said.

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