http://danvillesanramon.com/print/story/print/2008/02/15/cool-with-the-cops


DanvilleSanRamon.com

Cover Story - February 15, 2008

Cool with the cops

Police partner with volunteers for a safer town

by Geoff Gillette

Barbara Hubinger's reason for volunteering with the Danville Police Department is simple.

"When you've been an accountant all your life and suddenly get to drive a police car - that's huge!" she said with a laugh.

"I wanted to give something back," she added more seriously. "I know that sounds kind of cliché but it's true."

With the popularity of police procedural shows like CSI, America is becoming fascinated with law enforcement. How do police do their jobs? What it's like to be an officer? And what happens behind the scenes at the police department?

Danville residents have a chance to see what it's all about, at the Danville Citizen Police Academy. Concerned residents have been going to the academy for the past nine years to learn more about what it means to be a cop, and some have even taken it to the next level by stepping up to provide volunteer assistance to the department, said Community Services Officer Shawn Desmond.

The Volunteers in Police Services (VIPS) program started in 1999 with the first Citizen Police Academy.

"It's a 12-week class that meets on Wednesdays. They basically 'meet' the Police Department and see how the organization runs, from Community Policing to other services," Desmond said.

Attendees start off meeting with Police Chief Chris Wenzel, who gives an overview of the various services provided by the department. Then they move on to get demonstrations of those services.

"They talk to our officers and get to know them," Desmond said. "They get to go on ride-alongs, where they go with the officer on their patrol. There's a K-9 demonstration put on by our K-9 officer, Mike Ireland."

Other classes focus on traffic stops, even giving the residents a look at a simulated pullover. They are shown demos of crime scenes in order to gain a better understanding of how investigators approach a crime and what procedures are followed in securing evidence and determining the course of an investigation.

The class tours both the Danville Police Department and the county jail in Martinez. Desmond said there is a great deal of back-and-forth between the residents and the officers, which gives the participants many opportunities to ask questions and gain a better understanding of the life of a police officer and how they work in the community.

The involvement doesn't necessarily end after the last class.

"After they complete the academy they can apply for the Volunteers in Police Services program," said Desmond.

VIPS is a visible addition to the regular staff at the Police Department.

"We use them in a lot of ways," Desmond explained. "Each person has to sign on for a minimum of 16 hours per month of volunteer time. They work at the counter, answer phones or help with vehicle maintenance.

"You will see them out on the streets during the 4th of July Parade or Hot August Nights. They help us tremendously with our special events."

Two police officers oversee the program, and Desmond and other Community Service Officers act as a liaison with the volunteers.

"Once they've gone through the application process and been accepted as a volunteer we like to see what they can bring to the program," Desmond said. "The skills they bring determine how we are going to use them. Two of our current volunteers are chaplains."

Currently there are 15 VIPS, doing a variety of jobs for the department.

"These are people who have learned about what we do and want to be a part of it," said Desmond. "They wear uniforms, they take pride in the fact that they work here."

Long time Danville residents Harry and Barbara Hubinger have been part of the VIPS program almost since its beginning and are in their seventh year of service.

"Living in Danville for 40 years, you want to give back to the community," said Barbara Hubinger.

Now retired, both Hubingers have a history of involvement, from PTA to volunteering at the Museum of the San Ramon Valley to refereeing soccer matches. Barbara said the VIP program was something that just seemed to fit.

Susan Cowell and her husband Paul have been helping out for six years. The Cowells are both still working but also put a lot of their time into volunteerism, through church and the VIPS program.

Cowell said their desire to help led them to the Citizen Police Academy - as well as simple curiosity.

"Paul and I wanted to find out how the police work," she said. "And Paul was always curious about being in a police department. He likes the discipline and responsibility of the police and the Marine Corps."

Both the Hubingers and Susan Cowell said attending the citizens' academy was an eye opening experience.

"They showed us everything here at the Police Department," said Cowell. "They showed us weapons, they showed us how to fingerprint."

"We visited the jail," added Harry Hubinger. "It was very comprehensive."

Hubinger said that while they learned a lot going through the academy, they've really built on that knowledge since joining VIPS.

"The continuing education that they've offered us has been marvelous," he noted. "Auto training, driving training, weapons training, first aid. The follow-on training is almost more intensive than the academy."

Training and knowledge are only part of what these VIPS have experienced.

"The training is great, but for me it's being associated with a fine group of people and seeing them differently," said Cowell. "You can't help but view (police officers) more humanly than otherwise and certainly with no fear."

"You just have so much more respect for them," added Barbara Hubinger. "You think about how much they put on the line every day."

While they have many duties inside the confines of the Police Department, the VIPS do a lot out in the community as well.

"You'll see us out and about," said Harry Hubinger. "Not just at the parades. We do a dining patrol, where we go through the downtown area."

"It started because there were a lot of car burglaries in the restaurant area," he added. "So we patrol down there in the car and on foot."

Barbara agreed.

"It's been helping since we started doing the patrol," she said. "The thing I've been surprised at is what people leave in their cars. You walk down the rows of cars parked at the Clock Tower lot and you'd be amazed at what people leave in their cars. It's a treasure trove."

She said the VIPS often leave notices on cars to remind owners to lock up their valuables. And they will ticket those cars who park illegally in spots designated for the disabled.

The VIPS have also undertaken a program called "If I were a thief."

"A large percentage of thefts are crimes of opportunity," Harry Hubinger explained. "So we drive around and if we see a garage door open with no cars we'll send them a notice saying, 'If I were a thief I would have selected your house because...'. So far we've sent out about 3,500 notices."

Not only do the VIPS meet with good reactions from the public, they are also greatly appreciated by the officers they work alongside day after day. Chief Wenzel said he has been really pleased with the police academy and the VIPS program.

"This is a great way for us to get volunteers to help us out in the community," he said. "They do a great job of helping with crime prevention and making people aware of how they can be safer."

"The VIPS augment us and that lets us provide the level of service that we do," he added.

Wenzel said the service they provide to the officers is matched by what they do out in the community.

"They are ambassadors for us," said the chief. "They're right here in the middle of things and help us with our special events. They play an important part in what we do here."

Officer Desmond said the department has seen the program grow steadily over the years and she is hoping to see this level of commitment and volunteerism continue as more people get involved.

"We had 10 people in our last citizens' academy," Desmond said. "We'd like to see that many people or more come in and take the class."

Meet your police department

What: Danville Citizen Police Academy

When: 12 weeks on Wednesday evenings, beginning March 19

Where: Danville Police Department, 510 La Gonda Way (in back)

Cost: Free

Information: Call 314-3410

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