RIO COMMUNITIES—In an effort to put more eyes out into the community, the city of Rio Communities has begun the process of forming an all-volunteer Citizen’s Patrol.
Even before the city incorporated in January 2013, one of the main concerns residents had was the lack of law enforcement in the area. The concern is still there despite the city having an agreement with the Valencia County Sheriff’s Department.
The city pays the county about $120,000 a year for a deputy to patrol the area 40 hours a week.
While the city councilors will soon meet to talk about next year’s budget and if there will be enough funding for a second deputy, two councilors, Peggy Gutjahr and Joshua Ramsell, have taken the lead in organizing the all-volunteer Citizen’s Patrol.
For months, the two councilors have been researching the possibility of forming a patrol, talking with their insurance company and risk management, the sheriff and others willing to offer advice and ideas.
The Citizen’s Patrol would consist of an all-volunteer group of residents, who would drive around the city in shifts and report suspicious activity to law enforcement. They would also patrol neighborhoods and homes that are vacant or whose owners are out of town.
“I met with the sheriff and she is extremely excited about this,” said Councilor Peggy Gutjahr of Valencia County Sheriff Denise Vigil at a public forum held last week regarding the proposed Citizen’s Patrol. “She said we would be dealing with (the Valencia Regional Emergency Communications Center) and our (deputy) to make sure they understand what we are doing.”
Gutjahr said Valencia County Undersheriff Mark Kmatz would be training the volunteers about what they can and can’t do, and informing them of what exactly an emergency is.
While training the Rio Communities volunteers, Gutjahr said Kmatz will offer a refresher training to the Bosque Farms Community Watch volunteers.
Gutjahr said the city would have its own responsibilities, including making sure its citizens are aware of the program, how to get involved and how to utilize the program.
“We will provide a car with a sign that only reads, ‘Rio Communities,’” Gutjahr said. “We can’t make it look like it’s for security for liability reasons.”
A draft of the guidelines include that all volunteers would have to undergo a background check and driver’s license review before they are accepted into the program. Gutjahr said the volunteers would be responsible for paying for these, which would cost about $30 for both.
Patrol members will not be allowed to carry guns or weapons. Gutjahr said other citizen patrols in the past have had issues with volunteers and weapons.
“It did not go well,” she said. “They had to stop the patrol and ban it.
“We’re being careful how this is set up, and set guidelines of what you can and can’t do.”
Other guidelines volunteers must adhere to, include:
• Patrol members cannot wear any uniforms that resemble security or police
• Patrol members are not to stop any citizens. They are only allowed to observe and report
• Patrol members are not allowed to get out of the car when on duty
• Patrol members are not allowed to confront any individuals
• Patrol members cannot make traffic stops
• Patrol members must sign and abide by the city’s ethics and social media policies
• Only authorized volunteers are allowed to ride in the car
• Must be two patrol members in the car
• Patrol members should act as a normal person/average traveler
• Patrol members will sign in and out
• Patrol members will successfully complete all training
• Patrol members must sign that they have read, understand and will comply with the guidelines
• Patrol members who violate the guidelines will be removed from the patrol
One resident at the public forum asked if while on patrol, and someone stops them and chats, can they engage if, for example, their dog is lost.
Gutjahr said the patrol member cannot stop to talk or help residents, saying if they do for one, they have to do it for all. She also said the city and the volunteers would be offering a “duty to act,” which she said isn’t part of the program.
“We need to make sure the citizens know this,” Gutjahr said. “We have to be very clear what our responsibilities are.”
Another resident asked if volunteers on patrol could take pictures or video of a burglary in progress. Ramsell said he doesn’t want to put anyone in harms way.
“People can take video or pictures if they see a suspicious car parked, for instance,” Ramsell said. “But we don’t want to put yourself in a position that makes you a target.
“Also (law enforcement) can’t use the video because it would affect the chain of evidence,” he said.
While all of the guidelines are still to be determined, Gutjahr said she plans to have patrol members volunteer in two-hour blocks during the daylight hours.
“The more volunteers we have, the more coverage we’ll have,” Ramsell said.
While the fine details are still being worked out, Gutjahr said she hopes to have the first training completed by May. She said more information about the Citizen’s Patrol will be forthcoming in the coming weeks.