Nearly 20 years ago, Janice Arcieri, of Stoneleigh, was worried about the mounting car thefts and other crime in her neighborhood.
“We just realized we had to do something,” Arcieri said. “The question was, what would we do?”
A citizen patrol program seemed to be the answer, but Arcieri thought it was not enough just to patrol her own neighborhood, shifting crime into the one next door. To really reduce crime, people in other neighborhoods would have to patrol, too.
So in 2000, Arcieri teamed up with Pat France, of Knollwood-Donnybrook, to coordinate their Citizens On Patrol programs and begin spreading the practice to other neighborhoods, including Anneslie, Wiltondale and Idlewylde, said Arcieri, who retired from the group a couple years ago to spend more time with her grandchildren.
The partnership became Towson Area Citizens On Patrol, a nonprofit incorporation that works with individual neighborhood patrol programs.
“It was a way of educating the public about what they could do, because if you don’t know what to do, how could you do it?” Arcieri said.
For 18 years, Towson Area Citizens On Patrol worked at preventing crime in Towson. The organization helped spread the Citizens On Patrol program to each neighborhood, educated the public on crime prevention and hosted the area’s annual National Night Out that promotes community-police relations.
But with most of TACOP’s aging board ready to step down, and no volunteers to take their places, France, its vice president, said the nonprofit incorporation is shutting down at the end of the year.
France, 75, and Treasurer Bonnie Klima are both retiring from the four-seat board.
Mike Calwell, 48, president of TACOP, said the organization cannot function without four people on its board so the remaining board members are forced to dissolve it.
The organization founded by people in their 50s is now run mostly by those same people in their 70s, France said, adding that she often spent eight or nine hours each day volunteering. And as those volunteers retire to focus on other priorities, France said nobody has taken up the mantle.
“I was hoping people would be concerned about the community enough to say, ‘That’s a reasonable organization, I want to keep it going,’” Calwell said.
As an umbrella group made up of its board, TACOP does not have a patrol program itself. France emphasized that although the Towson umbrella organization will shut down, individual neighborhood Citizens On Patrol programs will continue independently.
“People who are patrolling, please continue,” France said.
“The mission of TACOP Inc. is educating the community on crime prevention, supporting the locally operated citizen on patrol groups and outreach in the community,” said an Oct. 2 letter released by the board announcing the organization’s end. “While these organized activities will no longer be provided by TACOP, there are still active citizen on patrol groups in many communities in Precinct 6. This will not change. And, they will still need your support.”
TACOP will shut down at the end of December, France said. Its efforts organizing National Night Out and training Citizens on Patrol programs will be spread out to other organizations like the Police Community Relations Council.
‘Every citizen is a citizen on patrol’
When asked if there were a way to measure the COPs’ impact on Towson crime, Capt. Jan Brown of the Towson Precinct said that would be “difficult to quantify,” but that TACOP has had a major role in getting community members to actively work with police.
“I’ve never been involved in a community like Towson where there’s so many people concerned about partnering with us,” Brown said. “And Pat France is a big part of that reason.”
Citizens on Patrol programs in Towson use a variety of methods to deter crime. Neighbors schedule shifts to patrol the neighborhood in car or on foot, France said. Those who see a crime in progress call the police.
France said patrollers can identify themselves with a yellow light and signs or go incognito to catch and report criminals in the act. Most groups use a combination, she said.
But patrolling does not have to be confined to formal shifts, France said.
“Every citizen is a citizen on patrol,” France said. Neighbors can do their part by driving up and down a few extra streets on their way home or walking their dogs, looking out for something suspicious and picking up the phone.
France cautioned that citizens are just lookouts for the police; they are not supposed to carry weapons or get involved in incidents.
A 2008 Justice Department study of neighborhood watch programs found that areas with such programs were associated with lower levels of crime. Brown, the precinct captain, said the programs are integral to the police department’s job.
“They’re our eyes and ears, and we can’t do it without them,” Brown said, adding that many crimes have been solved thanks to calls from the community.
After implementing Stoneleigh’s Citizens on Patrol program, the neighborhood watched frequent car thefts and other crime plummet, Arcieri and France said.
“The streets of Stoneleigh are pretty safe, because the community is largely active,” Arcieri said.
France said it has been a struggle to sign on new volunteers as the original founders step back due to age or other obligations.
“The younger generation don’t seem to have that volunteer blood,” France said, referring to the group of people born in the 1960s through the 1980s, sometimes known as Generation X.
“Unfortunately, volunteerism has run its course over time, and somehow not enough people want to volunteer,” said Klima, TACOP’s treasurer.
Klima, 75, said she hopes TACOP will carry on and that others will step up but that she has reached her limit.
“I’ve been doing this for so many years, and I’m just ready to say ‘forget it’ for a while,” Klima said.
France said that when she was 12, she started volunteering, emptying bedpans in a nursing home. It was hard work, she said, but “I did what my mother told me to do.” Younger generations, may not have had that same experience, France said.
On the night before Halloween on what has traditionally been called Moving Night or Mischief Night, TACOP patrols Towson’s streets to prevent wrongdoing. Usually, France said the organization has 25 to 30 volunteer patrollers. But this year, there were seven.
Arcieri has a different take on why TACOP has diminished. She said the reason is less about volunteerism and more that the need for TACOP has passed. Towson area Citizens on Patrol programs are so active that “we no longer need the coordination,” she said.
“I think if there was a need, there were probably be people,” Arcieri said. “But a positive way of looking at that is that every community is stronger today, every community is more active, so there wasn’t really a need.”
France said many of the things she has done under TACOP will continue as she transitions to working with the Towson precinct’s Police and Community Relations Council.
She will continue to advocate for Citizens on Patrol programs and train groups, and may even help with planning National Night Out. But the difference is that she will be part of an organization, not the entire organization, France said.
Brown said the police department also will have to pick up the slack by planning events and “keeping people focused” on neighborhood patrol programs.
France said dissolving TACOP will be disappointing, but the group’s many responsibilities have weighed on her, and she said it will be a relief to step back.
“I’m sad, and I’m relieved,” France said. “I can now stand up straight.”