Back in 1996, when the St. Petersburg Police Department first started putting its volunteer patrol on the streets, the sworn officers didn't know what to make of the new guys.
They wore uniforms and drove police vehicles. But they didn't have badges or guns. And there was this: They were senior citizens.
"Way back then, they didn't know what we could do," said Larry Goddard, 67, one of the city's first volunteers. "But then we started helping them out with traffic control and finding lost bikes.
"Then they really started appreciating us."
Every time a volunteer handles a minor complaint or stranded motorist, it frees up an officer to investigate a crime or respond to a high-priority call. As Tampa Bay area municipalities face yet another year of budget cuts, law enforcement agencies are not as untouchable as they once were, making this kind of free labor more important than ever. To them, the thousands of volunteer hours are worth millions.
"One of the only ways to cut a significant amount of money out of your budget is to look at personnel costs," said Pinellas Park police Capt. Sanfield Forseth. "But the jobs themselves, the tasks, they don't go away. Volunteers are a way to fill those gaps."
St. Petersburg volunteers file records, take police reports, answer phones — even run the photo lab.
Tampa volunteers run the police museum and care for the mounted patrol's horses. Pasco County sheriff's volunteers help register sex offenders and take fingerprints. Hillsborough sheriff's volunteers help out at crashes and issue parking tickets. Pinellas Park police volunteers go on patrol on their own horses.
Just how important are they? Try asking local law enforcement officials what they would do without their volunteers.
"I … I don't know how we would get along without them," said St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon.
• • •
No Tampa Bay agency has more volunteers, or gets more value out of them, than the Pasco County Sheriff's Office.
The agency's 474 sworn deputies are assisted by 350 volunteers, most of whom are considered active, everyday workers.
Last year, they logged 58,633 hours, worth roughly $1.2 million to Pasco taxpayers.
That figure is based on an hourly rate of $20.85, which is what the Independent Sector, a national coalition of charities and foundations, calculated as the worth of an hour of volunteer work in the U.S. last year.
The Citizens Services Unit helps out Pasco's patrol deputies. Last year those 100 volunteers checked out 8,039 homes, responded to 2,053 crashes, served more than 2,180 subpoenas, responded to 500 calls for service, gave out 662 parking violations, moved 447 abandoned vehicles and cleared 226 highway obstructions.
They've also taken on jobs that paid personnel used to do. Last year, volunteers at the Gulf View Square mall substation fingerprinted 6,600 people for background checks.
"A volunteer can never replace a sworn deputy," said Pasco sheriff's Capt. Chris Nocco. "But they're a wonderful supplement."
• • •
Michael Bresse volunteers with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.
He and partner Jesse Phillips were on patrol Thursday. Bresse pulled their marked sheriff's car into a Seffner shopping plaza. He drove slowly and checked for handicapped permits. Then he noticed an empty car in the fire lane.
He walked to a dry cleaning business nearby.
The culprit walked out with his shirts.
The driver defended himself, saying he was just going to be a minute. But that's no excuse, Bresse told him.
"You can't park there," he said. "Not even for a minute."
The man grumbled. Then got in his car and left.
"We try to be polite," Bresse said. "Sometimes they'll talk back to you, but you have to be polite."
That's the thing about being a volunteer, he said. People know that they can't make arrests. Drivers sometimes speed past him on the road. He can't chase them or pull them over.
But Hillsborough sheriff's Deputy Lorraine Jordan said they don't need to do that kind of police work to help deputies.
"It gets the deputy back out doing law enforcement work," said the volunteer coordinator. "That way, he's not tied up doing something menial like directing traffic. And it saves the county money."
Bresse, 45, was laid off six months ago from his job as a truck driver. But even when he finds a new job, he's going to keep volunteering. He loves it. He puts in 30 to 60 hours a month.
The traffic accidents are the most interesting, he said. He doesn't relish seeing anyone injured, but he wants to help.
"The adrenaline is pumping," he said. "It can be a little addicting."
• • •
There's no lack of work for law enforcement volunteers.
At the Tampa Police Department, volunteers do clerical work, run the police museum and help care for the mounted patrol's horses.
The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office has volunteers who run Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous meetings and hold religious services in the county jail.
The St. Petersburg Police Department has volunteers who staff community centers and even patrol the Pinellas Trail.
The Pinellas Park Police Department has volunteers working as crossing guards, with the homeless and tackling urban blight.
It even has volunteers who work with the mounted patrol unit. They help out with crowd control and patrol Helen Howarth Community Park and the Parkside shopping center on weekends.
But those citizens take volunteerism to a new level: They use their own horses and pay for their own equipment and feed.
Patti Fiedler started volunteering in 2004. A year later, the horse trainer changed careers and joined the force. But she still uses her own horse and equipment.
"I really enjoyed it," she said. "It fit."
Volunteers, said Pinellas Park Capt. Forseth: "are looking to do something to help their community. It's almost the mind-set of a police officer. They're certainly not doing it for the money."
Then why do it?
"Two reasons why," said Pasco sheriff's volunteer Brad Routson, 62, who has been helping out since 2007. "The first reason is you're retired and you want something to do. The second reason is that I've always thought I should give back to my country."
That's why Goddard, the longtime St. Petersburg police volunteer, got into it. But these days he has a new reason:
"Now I do it because it's fun," he said.
Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8472.