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Police add unmarked citizen patrols to crime-fighting arsenal

Stoney Creek News | March 4 2005

Police Chief Brian Mullan says volunteers who will patrol city streets looking for crooks are more like "a mobile Neighbourhood Watch" and not meant to replace front-line officers.

A six-month Citizens on Phone Patrol (COPP) pilot project approved by the Hamilton Police Services Board will see trained volunteers equipped with cell phones, walkie talkies and spot lights as they drive their own unmarked vehicles in areas chosen by police.

Working out of Central Station, they will travel in pairs, and if they spot criminal or suspicious activity, they will be expected to remain in their cars and call police.

Chief Mullan said he doesn't see the patrols as infringing on traditional police work or reminiscent of citizen spies normally associated with authoritarian societies.

Similar programs are in place elsewhere in Canada and the United States, including in Halton, and are permitted under the Police Services Act, he said. Volunteers will sign waivers indemnifying police from any legal action as a result of any mishaps during their patrols.

"Basically, it's a group of volunteer citizens who will come forward and effectively be another set of eyes and ears on the street, to phone in when they see crimes being committed," Chief Mullan said.

Interested individuals will be screened, trained and will meet with a supervisor before they go out on patrol and be monitored closely by the on-duty supervisor."

But Doug Allan, administrator for the Hamilton Police Association, said the volunteer patrols will unnecessarily put citizens in danger and are an inadequate substitute for front-line officers.

Unlike Neighbourhood Watch, where citizens are in their homes, the patrols will actively follow criminals, making them easily identifiable exposing them to potential assaults, he said.

"This will be dangerous and we don't see it as a proper function of a volunteer in the community. It puts them in way too much danger," Mr. Allan said.

"It's the function of the police. If we need more police officers out on the street to perform that function, then more police officers should be assigned or hired to go out on the street in those areas to do more proactive policing," he said.

"You couldn't have volunteers go into Stelco and start doing jobs that they're short-handed on."

But police services board chair Bernie Morelli welcomed the pilot project as another way to provide officers with the information they need to combat crime.

The program is "not at all" a step toward police-state like spying on citizens or a blurring of law enforcement responsibilities, he said.

Board member Jane Mulkewich said she's concerned citizen patrols might unfairly target minorities and asked how citizens will determine what qualifies as suspicious behaviour.

Chief Mullan said the program will only target lawless behaviour.

"They'll be looking for criminal activity and they'll receive training on what criminal activity is," he said.

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