A year ago Ricky and Ann Lewandowski spent evenings watching crime shows on TV.
Now the couple is out on patrol themselves.
The Wheeling residents are part of the 35-member village Citizen Patrol, a group that acts as the eyes and ears for the police department on a nightly basis.
"It totally changed our lives," said Ann Lewandowski, a 12-year village resident who graduated from Wheeling's citizen academy with her husband in November 2010. "We found a sense of community. We've lived here for years but we never participated in anything. I fell in love with Wheeling."
Although the citizen police academy and patrol have been around since the 1990s, officials said the volunteer groups are becoming increasingly important and helpful to the police department as budgets continue to be strained.
Wheeling officer John Abbio, who leads the citizen academy and patrol, said 2011 is on pace to become a record year for volunteer time in the village, with 1,645 hours logged by the end of August.
"I think they have helped out a lot as we scale back," Abbio said.
Although each volunteer is required to work only four hours a month, the Lewandowskis said they have each worked at least 20 hours so far this month. From helping direct traffic when "American Idol" finalist Haley Reinhart was in town to participating in a 9/11 memorial, to calling in graffiti and other suspicious activity, the citizen patrol is there.
"These people want to help their community," Abbio said. "It's fun, exciting and they are making a difference."
The citizen patrol is trained not to confront suspects and is not allowed to arrest anyone. The only ticket they can write is for handicapped parking violations.
"We don't pretend to be the sworn officers. We are just here to help them," Ricky Lewandowski said.
In order to join the citizen patrol, residents must first complete the free citizen police academy, a 10-week course that includes lessons on the department's canine unit, crime prevention, traffic enforcement and DUI training. There is also a popular class on evidence collection, known as the CSI class, where students learn about fingerprinting and footwear identification, Abbio said.
Toward the end of the program, participants learn about what weapons are used in different situations and get to try some out in the shooting range. After graduation students can take the knowledge and move on, or join the citizen patrol.
"People want to see what their police department does, or they see police on TV shows or they just want to know where their tax money goes," said Deputy Police Chief John Teevans.
The current class began Sept. 1 and has 15 students.
The Lewandowskis said they've gained a new perspective on police officers through their experience, learning they aren't people to fear, but are compassionate and want to help.
"You never get to see them other than in official business and it's usually a bad thing," Ann Lewandowski said.
The couple is also a part of the Citizen Police Academy Alumni Association, which works to raise money to buy bulletproof vests and other necessary equipment for the department.
Driving around in the community, the Lewandowskis literally become extra eyes for the Wheeling department. They normally patrol at night, checking to make sure buildings are locked and looking out for kids past curfew.
If someone has left their garage door open or car unlocked, they will leave a notice with safety tips for crime prevention.
"I was the victim of a car break-in, so I know what it feels like to be a victim and what it feels like to be on the other side of the law," Ann Lewandowski said. "I don't want to be a victim and I don't want my neighbors to be victims."
"We never thought we'd be doing this," Ricky Lewandowski said. "But we go out and have fun and do our jobs. It's a blast."
Copyright 2011 Paddock Publications, Inc.