Clovis News

Cash-strapped Fresno police enlist volunteers

Attention, Columbo-wannabes. Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer wants to hear from you -- if you'll work for free.

Faced with a shrinking budget, Dyer is starting a pilot program to see whether volunteers can competently perform tasks such as gathering evidence and interviewing victims.

Using volunteers to handle jobs formerly handled by employees could catch on at Fresno City Hall and other local governments as officials struggle with declining revenues.

Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, who has had a budget crisis since she took office in January 2009, is expected to unveil a 2010-11 budget Monday that proposes layoffs to help close a projected $30 million budget gap.

The idea of volunteers doing police work may be particularly bold. As Dyer acknowledged, his idea may raise questions about the value of evidence gathered by volunteers when the Fresno County District Attorney's Office tries to prosecute.

In Dyer's new program, volunteers would do some investigative police work, such as handling vehicle thefts and vehicle burglary cases, and gathering crime-scene evidence such as fingerprints.

Dyer said these tasks were handled for years by community service officers and cadets, but so many have been laid off that much of the work is now done over the phone. He said sworn officers can't be spared from their patrol duties to meet personally with victims.

"What that means is the people do not get to see someone face to face," Dyer said. "It hurts me to know we're not able to serve them in that personal way. So, the question is: 'How can we do that without breaking the bank?' "

The department already oversees two groups of volunteers: the Community Emergency Response Team has several hundred members; Citizens On Patrol has about 50 members who help with tasks such as extra security at shopping centers during the winter holiday season.

Dyer's plan for his new group is to use about 20 volunteers from Citizens On Patrol with the time, talent and commitment to take on more complex law enforcement duties. He expects to have the program in operation by early summer.

"We've never really utilized [COP members] in a more demanding way, which is to actually go out and do some of the police work such as taking a crime report on a vehicle burglary and maybe even processing a car for latent prints," Dyer said. "We've not taken that step because we haven't had to."

Dyer said the volunteers would receive additional training, and the quality of their work -- from dealing with crime victims to writing reports -- would be closely monitored by experienced police officers.

If the first batch of volunteers is successful, Dyer said, the program could expand to 50 or 60 people. He said additional volunteer recruits could be retirees or the unemployed who want to keep busy.

Dyer said the volunteers' duties might someday include responding to commercial burglaries. However, he added, he won't use volunteers to respond to residential burglaries because the victims, whose homes and privacy have been violated, prefer to speak with sworn officers.

Courtroom implications

Dyer said he is aware of the program's challenges, such as potential district attorney objections about taking a case to trial built on a volunteer's evidence-gathering abilities.

The Police Department will be "working with the District Attorney's Office to see if they will accept those types of cases," Dyer said. The volunteers "may have to testify in court about how they recovered certain latent evidence."

A spokeswoman for Elizabeth Egan on Friday said the district attorney was too busy to respond to The Bee's questions.

Egan recently said budget cutbacks have caused police to respond less often to shoplifting complaints, forcing the District Attorney's Office, also facing budget woes, to decide whether it's worthwhile to prosecute suspects based on a private security guard's report.

Clovis Police Department spokeswoman Janet Stoll-Lee said the department makes extensive use of volunteers, but none is engaged in investigative work.

But it's not unheard of. For example, the Mesa Police Department in Arizona uses volunteer crime-scene technicians.

Volunteers have long been vital to municipal government, even in flush times. But Dyer's willingness to try volunteers in positions of considerable responsibility may represent the future at Fresno City Hall.

City Manager Mark Scott on his first day on the job last month said volunteers will play a key role in the reinvention of a leaner city government.

"I would welcome volunteers in every capacity where we train people and support them," Scott said.

And Swearengin -- echoing calls by other big-city mayors -- last month challenged Fresnans to annually deliver 1 million hours of volunteer service to nonprofit organizations. On Friday, Swearengin left no doubt that City Hall fits the bill as a worthy recipient of the Serve Fresno initiative.

"I think you're going to see a service culture come out of this" initiative, Swearengin said. "If there is any silver lining to this recession, and it's difficult to find one, it is that the public is aware of the struggles we're having at City Hall. They're willing to step up, and they're re-engaging in their community."

Cities getting creative

Swearengin said she supports Dyer's plan.

"There's a lot to consider," she said. "We've got to have a good system in place where we are recruiting and screening and training and monitoring those volunteers. But, potentially, it is a way to continue the service levels that our public is accustomed to while keeping the cost low."

Hilary Baird, the Bakersfield-based regional public affairs manager for the League of California Cities, said she and officials at the nonprofit Institute for Local Government want to hold a Valley conference where volunteer organizations and local governments figure out ways to work together.

"We have more citizens and more demands on the city and county general funds, but less resources," Baird said. "So, city and county officials are thinking outside the box."

A volunteer clerk in the Public Utilities Department is one thing. A volunteer conducting interviews and dusting for fingerprints after someone's car has been burglarized is something else.

Dyer said he knows he's proposing a major realignment in the relationship between the citizens of Fresno and its police department. But, he added, there's no choice but to try.

"All of us in the criminal justice system have to think differently in today's fiscal environment," Dyer said. "It requires us to take more risks than we're used to. And taking risks with volunteers is one of those areas."