Citizens Looking For Trouble

October 28, 1994|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,Sun Staff Writer

With two magnetic "Citizens on Patrol" signs attached to her Honda, Dorothy-Carroll Schirmer prowls the area around Towson Park almost every day.

She puts on her hazard lights and travels slowly through dark alleys, isolated parks and parking lots. Spotlight at the ready, she cruises past homes, motels and shops, watching for predators.

"You can't pick up on things if you drive too fast," said Mrs. Schirmer, 38, who belongs to one of about 40 volunteer groups that have sprung up in Baltimore County over the last few years to combat crime in residential neighborhoods.

The groups, called Citizens on Patrol, work like this: One or two volunteers drive around a community in their own cars, watching for break-ins, auto thefts and other suspicious activity. If they see anything, they use a car phone or radio to call another volunteer stationed in a home, who then calls 911.

Volunteers pay for their own gasoline and wear and tear on their cars, but they can apply for county and state funding for radios, signs, binoculars and other equipment.

"I'd like to say it's working great," Community Relations Officer Paul Ciepiela of the Garrison District said of the patrols. "We've seen decreases in crime, but can I give you numbers? Probably not. The proven side is that we're seeing communities being out there, being a visible deterrent. It's the visibility we know [that] works."

Ann McClain hopes it will work in her southwest Baltimore County community of Lansdowne. The community says it wants a patrol, but didn't express much interest at a meeting this

month, when she was the only person who volunteered to join. Before she knew it, she was in charge of the program and out recruiting members.

"I don't think there's very much support. But when I'm finished with these people, there will be," said the 32-year old federal Department of Defense police officer who works at the National Security Agency.

She went door-to-door, telling neighbors about an organizational Citizens on Patrol meeting, and she is looking at crime statistics to see what time crime is most likely to happen.

She wants to protect Warlord's Den, a book and hobby shop she and her husband, Geary, opened in May on Hollins Ferry Road, and help put a stop to the robberies that have been occurring in Lansdowne.

The granddaddy of citizens patrols is the Northwest Citizens Patrol, which started in Baltimore City in 1981 and now has about 700 volunteers who watch out for thousands of families in Northwest Baltimore.

It was the model for county efforts, according to Phyllis Oppenheim, who heads Baltimore County's Council for Citizens on Patrol, an organization formed a year ago to promote the community efforts.

She said the initial apathy that Ms. McClain encountered is typical, but it shouldn't discourage her or other communities from starting patrols. She she said some communities that started patrols with a handful of members picked up new volunteers as soon as residents saw them driving around.

you go out [only] Monday, Wednesday and Friday -- who cares? You're out there. It's like "Field of Dreams." If you go out, they will join."

After speaking at the monthly meeting of the District One Community Council -- an umbrella organization for 15 southwest county community groups -- Ms. Oppenheim met Ms. McClain and concluded: "She has her work cut out for her."

"I'm sure she's right," Ms. McClain said, "but I'm hoping to mobilize a group of people who are going to participate because they care about the community."

Mrs. Schirmer's Towson Park patrol group started small in May with four members who patrolled the community around the Dulaney Valley Shopping Center on York Road. Twenty-four hours after volunteers hit the streets, they helped catch a pedophile. Now there are 10 volunteers who have helped police recover stolen cars, stop an auto theft, catch a drunken driver and stop a dog attack on a person.

Rosie Poole has been in charge of the Villa Nova patrol on the county's west side since June 1. She called for volunteers in the community group's newsletter and now has 95. "We feel it is keeping out the riff-raff," she said. She said the patrols are easier to administer than are home-based neighborhood watches.

On the east side, Joe Ibarra and other members of the Tidewater Citizens on Patrol watch over the area on foot and on two mountain bikes obtained through a state grant. Since foot patrols started in April, and the bike patrols started last month, 17 volunteer patrollers have put a big dent in crack sales by reporting about 100 drug deals they've seen to police.

Whether patrols really succeed is hard to say, because crime prevention can't tabulated, Ms. Oppenheim said. But she added, "If you do nothing else but remove some fear from the people in the community, you've made a difference."

Communities interested in starting a patrol can call Phyllis Oppenheim at 486-9267


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