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Volunteers still drive neighborhood patrols

Sandy Smith of Neva-Wood COPS looks out the window of her car as she patrols a north Spokane neighborhood on Jan. 11. (Tyler Tjomsland)
Sandy Smith of Neva-Wood COPS looks out the window of her car as she patrols a north Spokane neighborhood on Jan. 11. (Tyler Tjomsland)

Numbers down but COPS volunteers keeping busy

It’s a chilly Friday afternoon in northeast Spokane. Kim Bailey and Sandy Smith have been watching the weather forecast carefully for a couple of days, hoping it wouldn’t start snowing again.

The two women are volunteers at Neva-Wood COPS, just east of NorthTown Mall off Wellesley Avenue, and they are getting ready to go out on their almost weekly neighborhood observation patrol.

“If the roads are too bad we don’t go out,” said Smith, who uses her own vehicle for neighborhood observation patrolling, or “nopping” as she calls it. “We don’t get mileage. I’m just more comfortable driving my own car.”

Smith put magnetic neighborhood observation patrol signs on the sides of her ice-blue minivan as Bailey got ready to ride shotgun, armed with a notepad and pens.

Bailey said she used to do patrols at COPS West in West Central before moving over to Neva-Wood COPS.

“In West Central it used to be that we’d go out in the evening and at night, too,” Bailey said. “But the driver quit and we stopped doing evening patrols.”

For now, the two are happy to go out once a week, often on Friday, and for a few hours they crisscross a section of the Nevada-Lidgerwood neighborhood, looking for graffiti, trash-filled yards, junk cars and expired license tabs.

Fewer volunteers

When the first COPS shop opened in West Central in 1992, neighborhood observation patrols were meant to be the eyes and ears of the COPS shops, but they are becoming extinct.

Ten years ago, there were eight active patrol teams staffed by 86 volunteers. Of the 10 COPS shops, only Neva-Wood and COPS Southeast have regular, active teams.

“Our numbers dropped when gas prices rose significantly,” wrote Maurece Vulcano, COPS program manager, in an email. “We do have about 10 other volunteers who go out on patrol on an infrequent basis, mostly during warm weather.”

At the end of 2012, COPS counted 257 volunteers – that’s down from 521 a decade ago.

“We definitely need more volunteers in some of our shops,” Vulcano wrote.

Neighborhood observation patrol teams don’t confront residents or knock on doors. They simply write down what they see on a form that is then turned into the neighborhood resource officers, now called the neighborhood conditions unit. That officer shares the information with appropriate law enforcement agencies.

On this Friday, only cats seem to be on the prowl in the neighborhood so the focus quickly turns to spotting expired license tabs. Smith drives slowly up and down neighborhood streets, often turning around for a second look, before Bailey writes down the license plate, type of car and address where it’s parked.

“If a car is left on the street with an expired tab it becomes an abandoned vehicle and it can be towed,” said Smith, carefully navigating a narrow street. “We find so many of them every time we go out. I can’t believe we didn’t start writing them down sooner.” She doesn’t know how many of the vehicles are actually towed after she reports them.

“People get one of those yellow warning slips on their car, and they go in and renew the tabs,” Smith said. “If you look at it that way we are making money for the city and the county.”

Mini city halls?

A recent public safety restructuring proposal from Mayor David Condon’s office included the idea that COPS shops could serve as mini city halls in the neighborhoods.

That’s not an idea that sits well with Smith.

“We already do so much, I’m not sure we’d have time to do much more,” she said. “We don’t want to become unpaid city clerks.”

City spokeswoman Marlene Feist said there are no specific plans to give more tasks to COPS volunteers.

“The mayor and the police chief think that there is an opportunity to possibly use the COPS locations to bring city government closer to our citizens and businesses,” Feist said. “Could you, for example, sign up for a parks class or pay a parking ticket at these locations? We wouldn’t ask COPS volunteers to take on these kinds of city functions. Those would be far better suited to a city employee.”

Vulcano said COPS shops stay busy even though volunteer numbers are dwindling: They recorded more than 29,000 incident reports in 2012 – that’s up 9,000 compared to 2010.

Most of these reports are called in or reported in person.

At COPS Southeast, which is located in Lincoln Heights and covers most of the area south of 17th Avenue, volunteers use incident reports to target their patrols because it’s impossible for the six to eight volunteers to cover the entire area.

“We do what we call directed patrols,” said Kendall Eminger, who’s volunteered with COPS Southeast since 1994. “Whenever the neighborhood conditions unit tells us there’s a problem somewhere, or if neighbors tell us there’s a crime problem, that’s where we go.” Their goal is to do one patrol a week for two to four hours.

Eminger said COPS Southeast needs more volunteers for patrol teams and for the shop.

“It’s become a lot more difficult to get volunteers after the economy went the way it did,” said Eminger, adding that people are more likely to volunteer if they experience a burglary or other crime. “And people who work and have young children in school are just too busy.”

Back at Neva-Wood COPS Smith and Bailey plan to continue their “nopping” and they are both looking forward to nicer weather.

“I just love doing the nopping,” Smith said. “It makes me feel so good that we are out here in public, making people aware that we are here and keeping an eye on things.”