In an effort to assist officers with the daily grind of safeguarding the communities they serve, East Valley police departments are home to various volunteer programs that provide much-needed leverage to the departments’ time and budgets.
The existence of police volunteer programs often helps shore up more time for sworn, or employed, police officers to spend on the literal public safety component of their jobs; tasking volunteers with non-emergency and non-crime issues offers the potential for departments to be “proactive in terms of addressing crime problems,” said Mike White, associate professor at Arizona State University’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice.
The national program, called the Volunteers in Police Service (VIPS), is utilized by police departments like those serving Gilbert, Chandler and Mesa. It is a program under the United States Citizen Corps, an organization that began in 2002 after the 9/11 terrorist attacks to enhance community involvement through volunteerism.
“One of the myths about policing is that all police officers do is fight crime and catch bad guys, and that’s simply not true,” said White, who has conducted research for and with police agencies for about 15 years. “There’ve been studies that look at the nature of what patrol officers do and patrol officers make up the majority of a police department.”
About 25 percent of an officer’s time is actually tied to fighting crime, while about 75 percent of the workload is basic police services, information gathering, taking reports and order maintenance, White noted.
VIPS standards are fairly uniform in hiring volunteers, but the number of fields, minimum work hours and the type of training offered in East Valley departments, like those in Mesa, Chandler and Gilbert vary.
Interviews and background checks
The Town of Gilbert Police Department’s 60 volunteers had to pass a rigorous interview process and “background investigation,” said Sherry Nielsen, a police volunteer programs specialist for the last seven years. It consists of fingerprinting, a records check, a polygraph test and a drug screening.
Conducting a background investigation, testing, training and signing a confidentiality agreement helps ensure volunteers will not violate the privacy of the 227 sworn officers, 122 civilian employees, and even alleged criminals being processed at the Gilbert PD, she said, considering volunteers have access to police data and building clearance.
“If they hear something or see something while they are here, they cannot take that outside,” Nielsen said, stressing the importance of confidentiality at each department.
The stringent interview process is by no means intended to scare people, said Melanie Slate, the City of Chandler Police Department’s VIPS community outreach coordinator. It ensures the department does not hire a resident who could damage its integrity.
Police volunteers have been utilized in Chandler for about two decades and have logged a total of nearly 36,500 hours over the past two years, said Slate, Chandler’s coordinator for six years.
Training and volunteer fields
Gilbert’s VIPS are able to choose the field they find interesting, Nielsen said. Training instructs volunteers on what they can and cannot do and how to communicate with others.
“Their goal is not to aggravate any citizens. Their goal is to help and support the police department by helping the citizens and supporting the citizens with the goal of keeping everyone safe,” she said.
Each field has different training specifications, whether alleviating officers of basic administrative duties or allowing an officer to resume patrol, Nielsen said.
The town’s volunteers had a total of 28,921 logged hours from July 2011-June 2013.
Chandler’s 62 volunteers, who support around 320 sworn officers, do not undergo peace officer certification as full-fledged officers do, Slate said.
They don’t have the authority to make an arrest as a sworn police officer would, although they can conduct a citizen’s arrest, which any private citizen can do.
Slate explained her volunteers must attend a 2-3 hour orientation and basic field training. They get to select from 18 fields such as an alarm unit, chaplain, dispatch aid, DUI task force, fingerprint technician, lab assistant or motorist assist.
Motorist assist volunteers drive vehicles, such as a Ford Escape or Ford Taurus, with volunteer decals on the side and a blue light bar, she said.
“They provide assistance to motorists who have encountered vehicle problems. They do utilize the same radios and in-car computers that are police officers use for communications and dispatching,” Slate said.
Chandler’s VIPS program is similar to Gilbert’s and Mesa’s with a one-year commitment and 16 hours of volunteering a month, “but several do more” than is required, she said.
Mesa’s program is slightly different because it has about 30 fields to choose from. Mesa has about 135 volunteers and 129-square miles of police jurisdiction, said Hall, a former Mesa Crime Scene Unit supervisor and forensics specialist.
The amount of training depends on the field they are placed into.
In Mesa’s Crime Scene Unit, volunteers will have eight weeks of class training and eight weeks of field training before they can assist officers with property cases, said Hall, who helped develop the volunteer unit. From 2010-2012, Mesa’s volunteers logged an approximate total of 86,267 hours.
‘Added value’ and community relations
By utilizing volunteers, Mesa saved approximately $500,090 — also known as “added value” — during the 2012 budget year. Mesa’s volunteer program began in 1990.
Hall explained one benefit of having volunteers is “you’re bringing the community” to the police department for a closer engagement and to receive tips about the community directly from citizens.
Expenses for the volunteers, such as the background process, interview, training, polo shirts, pepper spray, and Mesa’s annual volunteer banquet are paid out from the department’s budget, she said.
Slate said Chandler’s program has received weekly emails, letters and even phone calls commending volunteers assisting police officers.
“The VIPS program has also improved the overall quality of life for those who live and visit Chandler,” Slate said in an email.
The department’s jurisdiction is 71-square miles, she said, with a combined added value of $796,550 from budget years 2011-2013.
“The volunteers enhance what we are able to do rather than save money,” Slate said about the real benefit of Chandler’s program.
It has no definitive budget for VIPS, she said, because money is channeled to each field within each police unit making it difficult to tally.
The Gilbert Police Department polices 76-square miles and has received about 700 police commendations from people mentioning volunteers assisting police in the past five years, Nielsen said. The total added value was $634,362 from budget years 2011-2013.
“I think using volunteers is a good way to connect with the community and improve community relations,” said White, ASU’s professor of criminology and criminal justice, in an email. “It is a way for the department to show it is transparent and open to ‘outsider’s’ views.”
Corey Malecka, a junior studying journalism at Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, was an intern for the East Valley Tribune this past summer.