By Erika Webb
Tell the truth. You see the official car, look at your speedometer, lift your foot from the accelerator -- maybe pray -- and then breathe a sigh of relief when you read the words "Citizens Patrol" on the side of the car. Because that could have resulted in a hefty ticket ... if it actually had been law enforcement.
But don't discount them. As the eyes, ears and often hands -- with cameras in them -- of police and sheriff's departments everywhere, the stewards of public safety see to it that laws are obeyed and fellow citizens are protected.
Sgt. Evelyn Bearden is the community services unit supervisor and accreditation manager for the DeLand Police Department. The soon-to-be 29-year veteran of the police department has not succumbed to the pressure over nearly three decades of dealing with the harsher side of reality. Instead, experience has molded the exact opposite of the stereotypical battle-fatigued, sour and jaded cop. Sgt. Bearden likes people ... still. But then, she always did.
She's a glass half-full people person who's grown more so with time.
"I thought I would do this kind of as a hobby, the sergeant said. "I got in here and thought 'This is for me!' I haven't been able to get out."
Although she just started teaching the academy last year, she's hooked on grooming the students, many of whom become the ambassadors for the police department.
Those ambassadors are members of the Citizen Police Academy Alumni Association. They barricade and man blocked off streets, and direct traffic, at parades and other events. They direct traffic following accidents; conduct traffic direction radar surveys in neighborhoods where residents have complained of excessive speeding; distribute missing persons flyers as well as flyers informing residents when there has been a rash of car breaks in a particular area. Some patrol the streets.
Generally, citizen volunteers perform safe tasks, which aid the community while freeing up the officers to return to their primary purpose of preventing crime, Sgt. Bearden said.
In one instance, volunteers most likely saved an elderly man's life by locating him after he'd been reported missing. He was having a diabetic episode and was disoriented and lost.
"They found him at Walmart," Sgt. Bearden said.
The main purpose of the citizen police academy is education. Not all attendees become volunteers.
"The academy is more of an exchange with the public so we can answer common questions like 'Why are there six officers when it doesn't take six officers to do this?' or 'How many miles over the speed limit can you go before you get a ticket?'" she explained.
The answer to the second question, by the way, is zero.
People often want to know why an officer follows them as though waiting for them to commit an infraction.
"When we start following you, you've already done it," Sgt. Bearden said.
The officer is waiting for dispatch to return information associated with the vehicle tag number he or she called in.
Obtaining that information could mean the difference between life and death for the officer.
"The most important thing (students) are taught is they are eyes and ears and not to be involved in any criminal activity," Sgt. Bearden said. "That's why they have radios. They are never, ever to be put in a position of unsafe means. That's utmost to us that they maintain their safety."
During the classes, on 10 consecutive Thursday evenings, attendees participate in hands-on scenarios to better understand what officers deal with in the line of duty.
Creating understanding between law enforcement and the community goes a long way toward achieving peace, something she emphasizes while teaching.
"It gives them an understanding, to go back to their friends and family and share information," Sgt. Bearden said. "We look forward to those coming into the academy because we get good feedback and it helps us grow."
Citizen Patrol groups have been in use within the United States for more than 20 years. The number of individual Citizen Patrol Volunteers within is estimated at more than 75,000 with groups in every state of the nation, according to the National Association Citizens on Patrol, or NACOP.
Rob and Robyn Schmidt went through the DeLand academy in 2005. Since then they have logged many volunteer hours with the Citizen Police Academy Alumni Association.
Mr. Schmidt rides along with another volunteer on patrol at least once a month. Ms. Schmidt also is Krewe of Maravedi Head Buccaneer. In April that organization raised more than $5,000 at its annual Port O' Call Crawl for the alumni association.
A grateful Sgt. Bearden said it's the most money ever donated to them.
Mr. and Mrs. Schmidt have helped the police department at many community events, including 5k charity races and DeLand Bike Rallies. They are preparing to complete their bicycle patrol training.
Mr. Schmidt said he's appreciative of the public's positive response to them.
"People generally treat us with respect because they see we're working for the city as volunteers, helping out," Mr. Schmidt said. "Doing that gives me more pride in my community, helps me to see I can make a difference."
So far this year, DeLand citizen patrol volunteers have donated 1,770 hours, the equivalent of more than $38,500, to the department, according to a report provided by Jerry Sweigart of the alumni association.
Orange City Police Cmdr. Jason Sampsell is grateful daily to Orange City's Volunteers in Police Services who perform numerous miscellaneous tasks and errands, including fingerprinting and taking documents to the clerk of the court, which saves money and frees up sworn personnel, he said.
They photograph cars illegally parked in handicapped parking spaces so the department can issue citations through the mail.
And, like volunteers everywhere, they help with traffic duties at events and following accidents.
"Our volunteers save so much time and money. They help us out so much," Cmdr. Sampsell said. "We cannot appreciate them enough for the jobs that they do."
Daytona Beach Police Chief Mike Chitwood said the city's Citizens On Patrol are tremendous ambassadors for the police department.
In addition to traffic directing and other standard citizen patrol duties, Daytona Beach COPs canvass subdivisions to inform residents when burglaries have occurred. They fingerprint children at events, provide water to thirsty officers in the field; and during flooding events, COP volunteers have taken much needed supplies to affected residents.
"They are worth their weight in gold," Chief Chitwood said. "If you put a minimum wage on their hours they probably save this department several hundred thousand dollars a year in positive, productive things they do for us."
In Port Orange, the Volunteers in Police Service perform services in virtually every division, according to the city's website.
"The VIPS could easily have developed into a "club" for volunteers with no actual direction. After recognizing the need for services, such as vacation house watches and traffic control, the program has developed into a successful operation with membership nearly equal to that of the sworn personnel. Though there is not one single initiative that has been enumerated, the VIPS are a highly effective, flexible tool that has been designed to serve the public by pursuing all areas of public safety," the website states.
The Volusia County Sheriff's Department Citizen Observer Program, or COP, was established in 1989, according to the department's public information officer, Gary Davidson. There are 140 volunteers in the program and patrols in all areas of Volusia County within the sheriff's jurisdiction.
The program has won numerous awards and recognitions and has been replicated around the country, Mr. Davidson noted.
Since the program's inception COP volunteers have logged in excess of 4.5 million miles in volunteer patrols and more than 900,000 volunteer hours.
Citizen patrol volunteers do not take enforcement action, are not authorized to carry weapons and are encouraged to avoid physical contact. They only observe and report.
"C.O.P.'s greatest weapon is their established bond with local law enforcement and their ability to communicate directly with them by radio or cellular phones using special dedicated phone numbers," according to the NACOP website.
A word to the wise: No matter what's on the side of that official car, it's still best to obey all laws at all times in all places.
Other volunteer groups are New Smyrna Beach, Citizens on Patrol; Edgewater, Citizens Assisting Police; Ponce Inlet, Citizens Watch; Daytona Beach Shores, Shores Safety Team; South Daytona, South Daytona Citizens Patrol; Holly Hill, Volunteer in Policing Service; and Ormond Beach, Citizen Observer Patrol.