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Ventura County

Camarillo's Force Behind the Force

Volunteers: The Citizen Patrol is one of several teams in the county that provide vital assistance to police in their communities.

September 16, 2002|SUZIE ST. JOHN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Carole Crouse's son heard that she was joining the Camarillo Citizen Patrol, he jokingly asked, "Dad, they're not going to give her a gun, are they?"

They didn't, but the 64-year-old Crouse said her son, a Santa Barbara County sheriff's deputy, is well aware of the importance of the unarmed volunteer group.

"We love to be out there and be helpful," said Crouse, a member of the patrol since 1999. "Even if it means waiting for a tow truck, I'm glad to know that I'm able to put a detective back on the street where he can be helping someone else."

Formed in 1976--originally known as the CB Patrol--the Citizen Patrol is a joint effort between the city of Camarillo and the Ventura County Sheriff's Department.

Along with Thousand Oaks, Ojai, Fillmore and Moorpark, Camarillo contracts for the services of the Sheriff's Department instead of staffing its own police force. Officers drive black-and-white cars marked "City of Camarillo Police," but wear Sheriff's Department uniforms.

The volunteers who make up the Citizen Patrol wear the same uniform. But instead of a sheriff's badge, their badges are imprinted with the city seal. They patrol the streets in two marked electric-powered cars.

Crouse said it took time for the 31 patrol members to get used to the smaller vehicles because they originally drove Ford Crown Victorias, the larger sedans used by many police departments.

"Everyone said we're going to get run over," Crouse said. "But they drive like a dream and turn on a dime."

Until 1995, the patrol was essentially a Neighborhood Watch organization, its members patrolling on foot and communicating by CB radios. Then the city expanded its duties and its areas of patrol.

Today's group is made up of men and women, most of retirement age. Asked to volunteer a minimum of 16 hours a month, most are on duty for between 40 and 100 hours a month. Their backgrounds vary widely--one was a psychiatrist, another a movie producer--but they all come together for the common purpose of helping to keep their city safe.

The patrol members cruise the city in pairs on six-to eight-hour shifts, from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Their duties include checking on abandoned cars, assisting deputies with traffic control after accidents, doing house checks for residents on vacation, waiting with motorists for tow trucks and being on the lookout for suspicious vehicles or activities.

"They strictly serve as our eyes and ears in the community," said the patrol's advisor, Yvonne Wooff, a senior deputy with the Sheriff's Department. "They are not to take any enforcement action. Anything they see, they radio in to the department."

She said a perfect example of why they don't get into confrontations happened last year. Two patrol members thought they saw a disabled vehicle, but upon reaching the front of the car they observed two men fighting. The patrol members called the department, but the two men took off--one on foot and one in the car.

"They gave the deputies a good description of the car and the license plate number," and the vehicle was stopped within minutes, said Wooff, a 10-year veteran of the department. "In the car, the deputies found 45 weapons, including automatic rifles, guns and knives."

The Citizen Patrol is sometimes called upon by detectives to assist with tasks relating to the cases they're working on. Those duties could involve anything from providing extra eyes on a stakeout to photocopying evidence before it's handed over to the district attorney's office.

Jim Walker, 66, recalled when the patrol was asked to help with surveillance on a local hotel after a string of robberies at hotels from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara.

"After three weeks, we spotted the suspected vehicle entering the parking lot, and it ended up being tied to more than 40 robberies," said Walker, a patrol member since 1997. "We don't do stakeouts that often, but when extra resources are needed, we're there to help out."

Wooff said the Citizen Patrol members also help with traffic control at city events such as the annual Christmas parade, work as school crossing guards and run a fingerprinting program in which a child's name, address, physical description and thumbprint are registered with the Sheriff's Department.

Patrol applicants must be at least 21 years old and are required to speak, read and write English fluently. After they fill out an application and questionnaire to determine eligibility, an oral interview is given, followed by a full background check. They receive 40 hours of on-the-job training on first aid, patrol procedures, how to recognize suspicious persons and vehicles, traffic control and searching for lost or missing persons.

Similar volunteer groups throughout the county range in size from 12 members in Santa Paula to 60 in Thousand Oaks. The names vary from Volunteers In Policing, to Ojai Valley Volunteer Program, to Neighborhood Watch Patrol.

While many of the duties are similar, some of the volunteer groups issue parking citations, a duty that was intentionally avoided in Camarillo.

"Once you write that first ticket, you become the enemy," Wooff said. "We don't want that to happen, because we're building a partnership with the community."

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