Utah volunteers ease officer load in routine matters
By Rosemary Winters
The Salt Lake Tribune
West Jordan, Utah — Stacie Powell tracks records at the West Jordan Police Department, but she dreams of tracking down criminals.
So when the city began offering a backstage look at the ins and outs of being a police officer, she signed up and completed the 12-week Citizen Police Academy.
"Pretty much every class I attended I came away with a greater appreciation for what law enforcement officers do," said Powell, who is 33. "Some day, I hope to become an officer."
For now, she is content to be close by, sorting reports and answering the office phone.
But several residents are about to get even closer.
In January, West Jordan is rolling out a post-graduate program for those who complete the academy. Volunteers In Police Service (VIPS) will help perform non-enforcement duties that don't require a sworn officer. Some will participate in neighborhood patrols, driving a marked "citizen patrol" car and using a radio to contact an officer if necessary. Others will help staff the department's satellite stations, perform clerical work, take stolen-property reports or direct car traffic in problem spots.
Already about 30 people have applied to be VIPS, but the department plans to use only five to 10 this year, said West Jordan Police Chief Ken McGuire, noting the work will be no more dangerous than participating in Neighborhood Watch.
The potential for volunteers has been the "primary excitement" for offering the 2-year-old Citizen Police Academy, he said.
"A lot of [the graduates] are really pumped. They have a greater understanding of police work, and they want to help."
Having unpaid, unarmed volunteers will help the agency further stretch its 100-officer force in the state's fourth-largest city. West Jordan recently topped 100,000 people. Using volunteers to free up officers for higher-priority work is part of a national trend, McGuire said, but few police departments in Utah are doing it.
At the Citizen Police Academy, attendees learn how to investigate a crime scene, and they plug into a firearms-training simulator that puts them through various shoot-or-don't-shoot scenarios. The virtual shooting game forces players to make tough choices such as whether to kill a bank robber who is executing hostages or to shoot at an armed juvenile robbing a home.
"We don't keep anything back from them," said Sgt. Greg Butler, who oversees the academy. "We don't expose them to anything dangerous, but we do put them in situations where we get their adrenaline up. It really opens their eyes."
Butler appreciates the program because it helps foster understanding and communication with the community his department serves.
"Most citizens are apprehensive about approaching [police officers]," he said. "They forget that men and women in law enforcement are humans just like everyone else. The way we're portrayed [in movies and television] is not reality."
Copyright 2007 The Salt Lake Tribune