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Largo police volunteers work to fill gaps for officers

The streets of this city can be trying, even for cops who aren't paid. Ron Wallace and Robert Smith are in their mid 70s. They're uniformed, but unarmed. They're two of Largo's 51 police volunteers, and for men who are supposed to be retired, they cover a lot of ground. Doling out parking tickets and directing traffic at crash scenes is part of their job. But ultimately, handling people, keeping their eyes and ears open, is key.

On a sunlit, windy afternoon late last week, they ran their rounds.

No call was too simple, no request too strange.

An officer's car battery died. They gave him a jump start.

A truck was left abandoned, and apparently looted, in a parking lot. They checked for anything amiss. Luckily, no bodies in the trunk.

A car was idling in an odd spot nearby. They drove over in their marked car — "V.I.P." for Volunteers in Policing — emblazoned on its side.

The man inside was fine, just working on a crossword puzzle, waiting on his wife.

"Just waiting for her to come out of the store," the man said.

"How long you been married?" Wallace asked.

"This one? Ha. Thirty, 32 years," he said.

"You've been married that long and thought she'd just 'be right out?' " Wallace replied.

Part of being a volunteer means smiling.

Even when the other guy isn't.

After dropping a warning on a white Honda for not displaying its handicap tag properly, Smith recalled other parking citations that didn't go so well.

Smith, a slight, soft-spoken man who worked on the space shuttle for Honeywell, and helped engineer parts for the Viking lander still parked on Mars, has been the target of raging illegal parkers, receiving the brunt of foul-mouthed tirades.

"You just be as nice as you can, and grin and bear it," he said. "And say, 'Have a nice day.' "

This team, and all the other police volunteers, aren't just men and women off the street who have power over parking tickets. It takes 16 hours of citation training before the volunteers can even put pen to pad.

It takes five weeks in total to train a new volunteer, and duties can include everything from helping with paperwork to directing traffic at crash scenes to patrolling the Pinellas Trail by bicycle to performing welfare checks.

"That's something we can do quickly that an officer doesn't need to do right away," Smith said of the welfare checks.

Once, Smith and Wallace found a diabetic woman unresponsive on her couch after her husband called and asked for someone to check on her.

These welfare calls aren't a high priority for regular Largo officers, and having volunteers able to respond quickly may have made a difference.

"I don't think she would have made it," said Wallace, who spent years directing loss-prevention for Sears stores in the Southeast.

As the afternoon rolled on, the radio chatter did not relent.

Auto accident. Walmart parking lot, the dispatcher says.

"We're already in the parking lot," Smith radios back.

Dominick Tao can be reached at (727) 580-2951 or dtao@sptimes.com.

. Fast facts

To volunteer

Interested in joining Largo's Volunteers in Policing? The department will be hosting its biannual academy this month, beginning March 18. The program is open to men and women 21 or older. For more information, visit www.Largo.com or contact Dick Hageman, the volunteer coordinator, at (727) 587-6739.

Largo police volunteers work to fill gaps for officers 03/09/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 9, 2010 5:23pm]
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