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15 volunteer police officers sought


Come out enthusiastically, with your hands up.

Howard County police want 15 volunteers to surrender their free time to control crowds, direct traffic and cruise neighborhoods in marked cars.

And there's only one week left to apply.

The new Auxiliary Police Unit -- a program used by some police departments across the nation for a half-century -- uses unpaid citizens to help officers police communities.

Local police officials say their adoption of the program allows them to keep up with a growing number of calls for police service each year.

"We're covering new ground here," said Lt. Dan Davis, head of the Special Operations Division. "Citizens can help us just as much as we help them."

The auxiliary members, armed only with pepper spray, would perform minor duties, freeing members of the understaffed police force to deal with such crimes as robberies, burglaries and thefts -- all of which increased in the first quarter of this year, Lieutenant Davis said.

"We can work as partners solving crime and disorder," said Lt. Jay Zumbrun, supervisor of the Education and Training Division.

But several police officers who refused to be named said they are worried the county is using unpaid auxiliaries to put off hiring desperately needed full-time sworn officers. And some residents worry that it will be harder to get officers when they need them.

Applicants for the volunteer force must be at least 18, pass a physical agility test, undergo a background check and be willing to commit 16 hours a month to police work. Lieutenant Davis said there is no requirement for Howard County residency, though knowledge of the area is helpful.

By the end of July, Lieutenant Davis and other officers will review the applications and make recommendations. Chief James N. Robey will make the final selections.

Nine weeks of training in first aid, traffic direction, parking enforcement, public rapport, self-defense and other skills will follow. The auxiliary officers will wear gray uniforms and have badges, pepper spray and police radios. They should be on the streets by early October.

"Any time you educate citizens, you improve cooperation in all parts of the community," said Lieutenant Zumbrun.

So far, about 20 applications have been received in response to advertising in a local paper over the past two weeks. Some of them have been from retiring military workers, Lieutenant Davis said.

The 323-member Howard County Police Department has 68 civilian employees.

The concept of using citizens to do minor police work is not new.

Concerned citizens have often been called the eyes of the police department. Police officials say the advantage of using citizens is their sense of pride in the job; they also often can identify with citizens making complaints, the officials say.

In New York City's Chinatown, for example, 175 volunteers who make up the city's largest auxiliary almost match the 180 sworn police officers assigned there. The auxiliary officers also serve as interpreters and cultural liaisons in the Chinese community.

In Maryland, Baltimore County has one of the most organized auxiliary programs, dating to its formation during World War II. Members gained arrest powers during racial turmoil in the 1960s, and the unpaid volunteers are eligible for some retirement money after 25 years.

Baltimore County Auxiliary Maj. Donald Stutman said the 120 volunteers keep busy with diverse assignments, including writing parking tickets, providing security during school functions, assisting sworn officers at crime scenes or driving police cars while responding to nonemergency calls for service.

"I look at it as my community service," said Mr. Stutman, a Baltimore attorney and an 18-year volunteer who is legal adviser and public relations officer for the unit. "It's always interesting."

Unlike the Howard auxiliary officers, the Baltimore County volunteers carry nightsticks because they serve in a more violent county, one that saw 4,748 aggravated assaults in 1994 when Howard County had 403, according to state police.

While Howard's auxiliary members will not be armed, some police departments in the southern United States permit such officers to carry handguns, said Lieutenant Davis.

Some Howard residents complain that recruiting volunteers is like recruiting mock officers with limited skills.

"Normal police officers need to be more visible," said Barbara Reed, chairwoman of the Roslyn Rise Community Association in Columbia's Wilde Lake Village. "Volunteers have no authority, so I'm not in agreement with using them for that capacity. Maybe they should be used to work in the office."

Baltimore County police Sgt. Louis Smigle, administrator of his department's auxiliary, dismisses criticism that auxiliary officers cannot do the job. "Some people say they'd like to see a regular police officer respond," Sergeant Smigle said. "But when a citizen needs some sort of help and you see a person in a uniform assist, it can relieve the anxiety and trepidation everyone's under at the time."

Howard police officials say the auxiliary program is just another example of their community-oriented focus, in which residents and police assist each other in fighting crime.

In Columbia neighborhoods, police have set up two satellite offices where residents can talk to officers. A Citizens Advisory Council makes recommendations to police officials, and 102 residents have graduated from an 11-week Citizens Police Academy, offered twice a year to educate residents about police work.

People who wish to volunteer as police auxiliary officers can submit applications, available from the police department personnel office, through June 23. Information: (410) 313-2255.

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