Life Can Be Risky

In light of the recent tragic deaths of three civilian police volunteers, there has been a fair amount of discussion throughout the law enforcement profession regarding whether or not civilian patrol-type volunteers should be used. The three deaths I am referring to involve Mr. Jim Durant of the Scarborough, Maine, Police Department, who on December 14, 2006 was struck and killed by a motorist while assisting with traffic control, and most recently, NYPD Auxiliary Officers Nicholas Pekearo and Eugene Marshalik, who were both gunned down at virtually point blank range by a deranged killer running from approaching armed police officers after he killed another man in a local restaurant.

Ultimately the final decision rests with the law enforcement chief executives who run their agencies to decide whether or not to use unarmed civilian volunteers in a patrol-type capacity to provide extra eyes and ears on the streets, and/or to further assist with additional non-enforcement actions that can free up officers to focus on the enforcement aspect of their jobs.

While it's certainly understandable to see why chiefs of police and sheriffs would express concern over the potential loss of life of a community member acting as a volunteer for their agency, it's critical to make these decisions armed with all the facts versus an emotional decision based on recent events.

The true risk

The fact of the matter is, based on the statistics of one civilian volunteer being killed in the line of duty per year, your volunteers are ten times more likely to be killed in a car accident while driving to your station to volunteer than while actually volunteering on the streets. Hard to believe, but the facts are there. There are approximately 200 million registered drivers in the United States, and 40,000 people are killed each year in traffic-related accidents. That's a one in 5,000 chance you will be killed in a traffic accident versus a one in 100,000 (there are approximately 100,000 civilian patrol volunteers in the U.S.) chance you will be killed performing volunteer duties on the street with law enforcement.

Think about that--more people are killed each and every year in traffic accidents than the total number of people killed on 9/11, plus all our military casualties fighting the war on terrorism, plus all the police officers killed in the line of duty since the numbers were first recorded, plus all of the nation's over 15,000 citizens murdered in any given year. Add all of those together and they still do not equal the total number of citizens killed each and every year in traffic accidents.

Fact is, several years ago two search and rescue volunteers with the San Bernardino County (California) Sheriff's Department were killed while in route to a call-out for missing hikers in the mountains, when the driver of another vehicle came into their lane and hit them head-on. In 2004, a detective from the North Miami Beach (Florida) Police Department was killed while driving back to the station after an investigation, when another vehicle hit his unmarked vehicle. And not surprising, half of the 157 police officers killed in the line of duty in 2006 were killed in traffic related accidents.

What does all of this mean? Just that life can be dangerous and accidents happen. One could make an argument, "but we have to drive our cars to get to work and school, etc. but we don't have to have volunteers on the streets in a patrol function." And herein lies the question: do or don't we need citizen involvement to get the job done, to prevent crime and help catch those who commit it?

Blame it on Sir Robert Peel

One of the first questions that needs to be asked is: what role does, or perhaps better put, should the general public have in helping to police their communities? Is volunteering to work in a police agency an appropriate activity for private citizens? To answer that question one needs to look no further than the words of Sir Robert Peel, the founder of modern policing, "...the people are the police and the police are the people, it is incumbent for all citizens to take action to protect their communities yet only a few have chosen a full time calling to do so."

Upon initial review, those words sound very noble and historical; however when you really break it down and grasp the full meaning, few truer words have been spoken. For any police agency to think they can truly do it all themselves without the assistance of the public, well, I offer them the following three examples: the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping; the DC Sniper shooters; and the case of eight-year-old Shasta Groene, a kidnapping victim. What do these three examples have in common? They are all representative of major crimes, well known in the media, which were solved with the assistance of above-average citizens who cared enough to step forward and volunteer to get involved in one way or the other, and thus saved more lives from being lost.

But you say, "Hey, what about all the police work that developed the information for the citizens to act on?" Yes, by all means, all these cases involved a tremendous amount of hard work by the police, and for that we owe them all a debt of gratitude. However, the point is that a true partnership between law enforcement and the citizenry is what helps keep our nation relatively safe and free from rampant crime and lawlessness. Without that partnership, I'm not sure law enforcement would be as successful in solving the number of crimes, and/or preventing as many as they do.

So now the question is, at what point do we stop asking the public for their assistance? Do we stop at just asking them to volunteer to call in suspicious behavior? Do we allow them to take one more step and volunteer to come forward and offer their assistance being an informant, for example, for illegal activities, such as having a drug house across the street from them? Do we stop at allowing them to volunteer to testify during a trial as a key witness? Do we stop at allowing them to volunteer to assist with in house administrative tasks, because they might get killed in a traffic accident while driving to the station? And of course the final question, do we stop allowing or choose not to implement a civilian volunteer patrol function, such as Citizens on Patrol, unarmed Auxiliary Police, etc., because it's too dangerous?

One question I would pose to any member of law enforcement is this: "Why not let the public decide what is too dangerous, and what is not?" Arm them with the true facts and potential for danger, based on accurate statistics, and not sugar-coated, either. Let the good citizens of our nation decide whether or not they want to get involved, and to what extent, based on the risk. Every week across our nation, hundreds of young men and women sit across the desk from a recruiter for our "all volunteer" armed forces, having to make a decision whether or not they should volunteer to join what may be an extremely high-risk job in the military. Many, in fact, choose to do so and pay for that decision with their lives, as we are currently seeing in Iraq and beyond. If it's okay for our nation's armed forces, the granddaddy of law enforcement on the world scene, to leave it up to citizens to decide whether or not to volunteer, then why would it not be okay for citizens in our communities to do the same?

Finally, before you answer that question for yourself, consider this: what would our country and world be like today if these brave men and women of the armed forces did not step forward and volunteer to fight for our freedoms? And as a follow up to that, what would the streets of our nation look like if brave men and women of all ages were not stepping up to volunteer to get involved in some fashion to work with law enforcement? Personally, I think we owe a debt of gratitude to Jim Durant, Nicholas Pekearo and Eugene Marshalik, along with their families and all those before them and after, who have and will give their lives to help make our streets safer for all, no different than the same gratitude we owe all the men and women of law enforcement. When all is said and done, in the end it's up to you to decide the role civilian volunteers should play in your agency. To honor those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice, we should first consider all the hard facts before making a decision.