Volunteering their time keeps police on the beat Residents train for county's first auxiliary force

November 01, 1995|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Elena Cunningham could only think of one reason why she'd be wearing a fluorescent orange vest, standing alongside Route 216 to learn how to direct traffic.

"This must be part of my mid-life crisis," joked the 46-year-old, who is training with 14 others to become a member of Howard County's first Police Auxiliary.

The group is about halfway through eight weeks of training. Afterward, members will volunteer up to 16 hours a month assisting county police with routine duties, such as directing traffic and writing reports.

In neighborhoods, the auxiliary will be another set of eyes for the police. But members will have no arrest authority and will be armed only with pepper spray.

The auxiliary will save the county money. Although the department has spent $7,500 for equipment and uniforms, auxiliary members will contribute an estimated $36,720 in services for the year -- based on the $12.75 per hour a first-year officer would earn.

"I see [the auxiliary] as a group that cares enough to volunteer their time for the community and who are willing to do the tasks that some policemen wish they didn't have to do," said Sgt. Steven Keller, a police spokesman.

At a recent training session, a group of auxiliary rookies was excited by what might be considered mundane chores for experienced officers.

Wearing their new gray uniforms, the members stepped one by one into the intersections at Route 216 and Lishear Road and Little Patuxent Parkway and Harper's Farm Road.

"It's a rush -- keeping track of all those cars, all those directions," said Kurt Sturr, a 35-year-old Army captain. "And all the drivers amazingly obeyed my commands."

From the sidelines, Dave Wanex, a 54-year-old from Woodstock cheered on his peers. "It's really intimidating when you see a car bearing down on you," he said. "It looks easy, but there's more to it than meets the eye.

"But if we can free up an officer in an intersection, it's well worth it to keep them on patrol and doing the important things -- looking for criminals."

More than 50 county residents expressed interest in joining the auxiliary, undergoing screenings very similar to paid police candidates -- including background checks and physicals.

Nearly half the auxiliary trainees have graduated from Howard County's Citizens' Police Academy, an 11-week program offered twice a year to teach residents about police work.

Ms. Cunningham, an academy graduate, thought police work would be an interesting sideline to her "normal life" as an administrator at an insurance agency and mother of two teen-age boys.

Another trainee, 44-year-old Tim Spahr of Columbia, is pleased to be given real responsibilities. "I thought we'd be doing [public relations work]," he said, "but now I feel like I'll really be contributing something to the community."

Across the nation and in neighboring counties, police departments have formed auxiliary forces. Baltimore County has a 116-member unit dating to 1957, and Anne Arundel has a 120-member auxiliary formed in 1980.

Cpl. John Paparazzo, president of the Howard County Police Officers' Association, said members of the police union aren't concerned about auxiliary members taking jobs from sworn officers. "I think this is being done in good faith by the department, to assist officers with routine tasks," he said.

Already, auxiliary members have learned radio procedures and report writing. Now they are learning driving techniques, first aid and conflict management. They will get another lesson in directing traffic.

"They need practice, though it was better than I expected," said Cpl. Frederick von Briesen of the traffic enforcement section. "I thought we'd have more close calls."

Lt. Dan Davis, head of the Special Operations Division and the officer in charge of the program, says the group shows promise. "I'm optimistic that they'll make a nice contribution to the community," he said.

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