The crackling over the walkie-talkie set the strip-mall commandos in motion, worming their way across a Northridge rooftop to spy on the wrongdoer below.
It had been a long, shivery night on the roof of Circuit City. No drug dealers, no gang bangers, no junior high graffiti artists to watch in the shopping center parking lot.
The four volunteers, members of the LAPD Devonshire Division's Volunteer Surveillance Team, had settled for sharing coffee cake out of a Baggie and talking about grandkids. Suburban crime, up until this moment, had seemed like an oxymoron.
But now there was a report of suspicious activity in a red Honda in the alley. And as the four graying spies clung to the edge of the roof, peering and ceaselessly whispering into their walkie-talkies, they acted as if they were witnessing the storming of Ft. Knox.
"There's this rush you get when a crime is going down right in front of you and you're watching it and the guy's got no idea you're out there and the cops are seconds away," says OP-1, a 66-year-old woman who wears an itchy black ski mask. She and the other volunteers dress in dark clothing and call each other "OP," shorthand police lingo for observation post.
In this case, the suspicious activity turned out to be a 20-year-old man smoking a joint. No matter. This was Northridge, after all. And when the cops stepped out of their squad car to make the arrest, chests puffed out, one of the OPs pumped his fist in the air.
"Way to go OP-3!" a cop shouted over the radio. "You spotted him, man. Good police work."
Intrepid Teams Go the Extra Mile
The surveillance team, the first of several in the city, has been spying for the Devonshire Division of the Los Angeles Police Department for the past eight years. They've huddled in cardboard boxes in the rain, waited in cars, worn wigs, scaled walls, peeked through holes in newspapers and helped police make 200-plus arrests this year from truancy to burglary.
The volunteers work in tandem with uniformed police officers on surveillance details by discreetly observing high-crime areas and calling for information to squad cars positioned a few blocks away, but they don't make arrests themselves.
Their success has spawned similar programs elsewhere, including the LAPD's Harbor and West L.A. divisions.
Many of the 55 members are retired and have time for late-night details, including an 83-year-old former Navy captain.
"It's better than fishing," said 58-year-old OP-6, who, like the other members of the Devonshire squad, didn't want to give his real name for fear of retribution. "We catch something every night."
The mastermind of the group is 28-year-old LAPD Officer Don Graham, a boyish patrolman who wears Hawaiian shirts and faded jeans and glows with an enthusiasm that's hard to suppress.
Calling himself a nerd with a gun, he gets volunteers pumped up before each detail by holding a roll call in the real squad room and saying things like "Let's be careful out there," before dispatching the squad.
Graham says the volunteers, who usually pull three four-hour details per week, have saved the department millions of dollars.
"We wouldn't be able to gather intelligence like this if we had to staff these details with paid officers," he said.
But Carol Watson, a board member of Police Watch, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization that scrutinizes police conduct, worries that the volunteers put themselves at risk and create unnecessary liability for the city.
Plus, "The idea of turning society into one where ordinary people are spying on each other is not a healthy social climate," she said.
Counters Joe Eddy, a Devonshire Division lieutenant: "If you want to get esoteric about it, this is what community policing is all about--residents watching over their neighborhoods."
Eddy also pointed out that, after eight years and hundreds of details, no volunteer has ever been hurt or overstepped the bounds of being an observer, such as trying to make an arrest.
Truants Are a Favorite Target
On a recent morning detail, the volunteers were itching for their next mission: busting truants, prized quarry that's easy to catch.
"You guys know the drill," Graham said in the roll call room. "Let's get out there and teach those little punks some respect."
With those words fortifying their already unswerving sense of mission, the volunteers filed out of the police station, into their cars and drove to positions around James Monroe High School in North Hills.
OP-1 was waiting in her dented Chrysler, its seats swathed in dog hair, her head covered in a very unconvincing nappy gray wig.
"You never know if somebody is going to recognize you from an earlier detail and blow your cover," she said.
Four other OP's were also in cars on side streets near the high school, eyes peeled for kids leaving school. OP-5 had the toughest assignment, parked across from a high fence known to be a popular escape route.