Nefarious types might look around for police cars before plying their MOs, but the no-goodniks in Whitehall have more to consider.
The city's growing Mobile Community Watch, a resident-based volunteer organization, serves as an additional set of eyes and ears for the Whitehall Division of Police.
Whitehall police Sgt. Spencer Salyers, the group's liaison, said the group has helped officers find the bad guys on multiple occasions.
The watch group added six new members this year, almost doubling its ranks to 13 -- its greatest number since its founding five years ago with six members.
Three are founding members: Don Brown, Tracey Heise and Janice Ritchey. All 13 are graduates of the Whitehall Citizens Police Academy and members of its alumni association.
The growth of the volunteer organization is just the latest outward sign of the police department's efforts to continue improving safety and community outreach.
Police Chief Mike Crispen leads quarterly town-hall gatherings to meet with residents, hear concerns and help teach them how they can improve personal safety and in the community at large. In addition, a series of retail blitzes over the past year has focused on shoplifting and related crimes.
The Mobile Community Watch meets once a month with Salyers to schedule patrol times for the watch group, hear briefings on any crime patterns and discuss any necessary policy.
"We try to get one team out every day of the month," Heise said, adding there might be five days a month that are missed.
Two volunteers team up for four-hour shifts.
"Those of us who work during the day sign up for an evening shift, (while) the retirees are usually taking a day shift," Heise said.
The team members work in pairs; they drive a Chevrolet Malibu, a city fleet vehicle, with amber lighting and "volunteer" markings.
The members explicitly are instructed never to approach or confront anyone they witness committing a crime or any person or property they encounter that they know are wanted by police.
"We are just another set of ears and eyes for our police," Heise said.
But members also reach out to the community.
Ritchey said members are "ambassadors" for the police department, helping spread its mission of public safety.
Members typically perform foot patrols in neighborhoods and at parks in an effort to meet residents.
"We have (children's) bike helmets we pass out to any kids we see riding without helmets," said team member Jim Reed, adding the helmets come with an explanation of the importance of bicycle safety.
The helmets were obtained through a grant from Nationwide Children's Hospital and the Columbus Blue Jackets Foundation.
Members also leave a "vehicle report card" on windshields, a yellow card that advises owners the vehicle might have been left unlocked or that valuables were left inside in plain view.
The report card provides tips to prevent thefts and contact information for the department's crime prevention officer.
New members are required to train with experienced team members and, when they join, to know how to handle a vehicle better than most drivers.
All of the watch-group members must pass a defensive-driving course, Salyers said.
He said he must be satisfied that volunteers have the ability and the skill to take evasive action to avoid being confronted, as the watch-group members do not carry weapons or chemical spray.
"They are trained how to evacuate (and) disengage" while in their vehicle from any potentially dangerous situation, Salyers said.
All in a day's work
When volunteers check in at the headquarters to start a shift, they pick up a uniform or jacket and inform dispatchers their intended area of patrol.
In some instances, Heise said, the volunteers choose where they'd like to patrol, but in other instances -- and similar to a roll call for full-time officers -- the volunteers are told of areas where there might be a rash of vehicle break-ins, and also receive any "BOLO" reports (the acronym stands for "be on the lookout").
In one instance, Heise said, volunteers helped lead police to a shoplifting suspect who had fled on foot; in another case, they found a vehicle police were searching for.
Salyers said the volunteers also help police in other ways, allowing full-time officers to give as much attention as possible to the most urgent calls for service.
They include performing house checks -- external inspections of houses at the request of owners to ensure no unknown vehicles are at the house, signs of forced entry or other issues.
Volunteers also inspect streetlights to ensure they are working properly and report any outages to the service department -- a chore that sometimes still falls to police working overnight if time allows.
Former City Councilwoman Leslie LaCorte, whose son is a Columbus police officer, is another member of the group.
"Safety has always been a priority to me and this is a way I can still continue to support my citizens," LaCorte said.
Ritchey, treasurer of the Citizens Police Academy's alumni association, teamed up with Jim Reed on a four-hour shift June 23.
Stationed at John Bishop Park, they walked a foot patrol during a softball tournament that filled the park and the parking lots.
Their presence invited inquires from several visitors and a chance to explain their mission.
"We're here to help our police (and) we have a lot of new members who are gung-ho" about increasing our presence in the city, Reed said.