Citizens on radar patrol

Agencies involve volunteers to address a common complaint


     When starting up a Neighborhood Speed Watch Program, St. Joseph Sgt. Bill McCammon says, "You need to be sure that all the procedures are set up, that you explain the reasons you are running a program, and you have to be prepared for negative comments."

     So far, McCammon says the program is going well. Citizens are getting involved (there's even a waiting list to use the radar guns) and developing a good working relationship with the police department. In about two months, the department sent out more than 30 letters to owners of vehicles that were caught speeding.

Running radar in school zones

     A common challenge of citizen radar programs is maintaining citizen interest in residential areas.

     In Kirkland, Washington, Sgt. Mike Murray has never seen any neighborhood group participate in the city's Speed Watch program for a long period of time. However, the city has kept three or four volunteers interested in its Speed Watch Program by focusing on school zones.

     "They are pretty much a fixture," he says, describing the senior citizens and one county employee who volunteers during her time off. "The schools expect them to be there. They don't have to be, but for two or three mornings or afternoons a week, they're out in front of a school where kids walk to school, volunteering rain or shine, all school year."

     The volunteers who wear jackets with the police department logo must undergo thorough background checks. After passing a background check, they attend an hour-long basic radar training class, and practice what they've learned for another hour or more in the field.

     When volunteers record speeding violations, Murray issues a warning letter asking the driver to be aware of his or her surroundings, the speed limit and the children walking to school because officers will be in the area issuing speeding citations. He estimates the police department sends out more than 1,000 traffic warning letters per year.

     Occasionally, he says the volunteers will get an earful from someone who is in a hurry and wants to know why his or her license plate is being written down. Other than a driver yelling or waving a finger, the volunteers haven't had problems.

     Overall, he says the school zone speed monitoring has been successful.

     "We don't have as many complaints or crossing guards talking about kids feeling like they were almost getting run over," he says.

Enlisting the help of seniors

     In Eugene, Oregon, the police department offers two radar programs. Citizens who are concerned about speeding in their neighborhoods can check out radar guns from the Crime Prevention Unit after they attend a training session. The Eugene Police Department prefers to have two citizens on duty: one to use the radar gun and another to document details on a radar log. Vehicles traveling more than 10 mph over the speed limit are sent a letter from a volunteer who has been trained to run the plates. If the same vehicle is caught a second time, a second warning letter is sent. The third time a vehicle is caught, the police chief issues a warning letter. And, the fourth time prompts a personal visit from a Traffic Enforcement Unit officer or sergeant.

     Eugene's Seniors on Patrol Program volunteers are often assigned to run radar at a specific location because the Traffic Enforcement Unit sergeant has received a speeding complaint. The Seniors on Patrol Program volunteers are considered part of the police department. They wear volunteer uniforms, drive marked volunteer vehicles and run radar from these vehicles. The procedures they follow are similar to those for the neighborhood program. A sample log and warning letter used by the Seniors on Patrol Program can be found on the national Volunteers in Police Service Web site at www.policevolunteers.org.

Getting the word out

     Informing citizens about a program can pose a challenge for many agencies.

     Carrie Chouinard, the Volunteers in Policing Program coordinator for the Eugene Police Department, says, "It is important that citizens and police personnel are educated about the program and are given program contact information so concerns about the program can be quickly addressed."

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