Volunteers serve as eyes, ears for Clark County Sheriff's Office

By Paul Suarez, Columbian freelance

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You can help

Both the city and county are accepting applications for new Neighbors On Watch volunteers.

Vancouver police are accepting applications for its fall class through July 20. For more information, visit Vancouver Police Department, click on “Get Involved!” and then “Neighbors on Watch,” or call volunteer coordinator Kelley Cheney at 487-7467. Volunteers must be U.S. citizens, live in the city of Vancouver, pass a background investigation and be available for at least four hours a month.

Those interested in volunteering in the county can contact the sheriff’s outreach unit for an application at 397-2211 ext. 3380 or e-mail sheriffcommunityo...

A tan 2008 Honda Civic crawled through parking lots of strip malls along Highway 99. Inside, a man and woman sporting tan polos and yellow mesh vests scanned for suspicious activity including broken windows, fresh graffiti or virtually anything out of place.

Dan Enright and Kim Evans are two of five volunteers in the Clark County Sheriff's Office newly formed Neighbors on Watch program. The program, modeled after one in use by Vancouver police for several years, puts volunteers on the streets to be extra eyes and ears for police and to potentially prevent crime.

Outgoing Vancouver police Chief Cliff Cook brought the idea from his previous job at the Fort Worth, Texas, police department, which had a successful volunteer program.

Vancouver's NOW program started with 16 volunteers in 2008. It now has dozens of volunteers who patrol neighborhood streets, talk with neighbors and help police monitor neighborhoods and find stolen cars.

People from the unincorporated county wanted to get involved but couldn't because Vancouver's program was only open to people who live in the city limits. Those interested came through the sheriff's advisory board and neighborhood associations asking the sheriff's office to start a similar program, said sheriff's outreach Sgt. Shane Gardner.

Gardner spoke with Vancouver police and arranged to send a few county volunteers to the city academy. The sheriff's office will start its own academy in early 2013, Gardner said.

"This is a great complement to all the other (volunteer) programs we have going," Gardner said.

Tuesday night was the third patrol for Enright, Evans and the sheriff's program.

They started just after 6 p.m. Tuesday in the Winco parking lot. Before leaving, Evans calls Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency to let dispatchers know about the patrol.

"This is CCSO NOW patrol calling into service," Evans announced on her cellphone. The dispatcher asked for her radio number.

Unlike Vancouver's NOW program, sheriff's office volunteers don't have access to police radios. To save money on equipment, someone on patrol keeps a log of where they are and what they see. If anything catches their attention, they call 911 with cellphones.

"'The strip' of Highway 99 is probably one of the busiest crime spots in the county," Enright said. "That's why we're doing this."

Enright, the first official sheriff's NOW volunteer, spent the last seven months working with Vancouver's program while he waited for other county volunteers to make it through training. He said he helped recover six stolen vehicles while on patrols in Vancouver.

His work in the county isn't quite as exciting -- yet.

"These patrols can be very boring," he said, adding that things have been quiet on the first two patrols.

Even if they don't see anything of interest on patrol, their presence (and the presence of a car labeled with two sheriff's NOW magnets) can serve as a crime deterrent, Evans said.

The two spotted a person sitting in the driver's seat of a white car on the side of Walmart.

"It's probably an employee on a break," Evans said.

"Probably," Enright agreed.

Volunteers can keep an eye on things that patrol deputies generally don't have time for, including spending time creeping through parking lots, Gardner said.

"I think it allows us to address some of the crimes that affect more people that are considered lower priority," he said.

NOW volunteers are also trained to give detailed suspect descriptions that can help deputies track people down after an incident occurs.

So far, Gardner hasn't heard anything negative from patrol Sgt. Randon Walker, who is working with NOW volunteers. He said they have a good attitude, are very professional and followed his requests for assistance, Gardner said.

Paul Suarez: 360-735-4522; http://www.twitter.com/col_cops;paul.suarez@columbian.com.