Dan Cochran is legally blind, but he's become the ears for his community as base commander and president of the new Essex Citizens' Patrol.
He got hooked on the concept in July, and when he discovered that the Essex area had no patrol, he formed one. Now he wants to draw more volunteers to increase coverage during the holidays.
"It's not a big commitment thing: You just go out in your car for an hour or two a week. I mean, we did that when we were punks," he said with a laugh. "With the crime rate up, it's time citizens start patrolling their own areas.
"It's simple: You just ride by, and if you see something, call it in," he said.
Mr. Cochran, 40, describes himself as a Mr. Mom -- caring for 6-year-old twin boys and an 8-year-old son while repairing small engines at his home on Margaret Avenue.
That's how he caught the bug. A man from a neighboring patrol group brought him a mower to fix during the summer and they got to talking about the idea. Mr. Cochran went to a meeting, worked with local police, and his group was launched.
Because he has been severely nearsighted since birth and can't drive, Mr. Cochran said he usually mans the base station. The group has about eight people who patrol regularly, but needs more to cover the mixed residential and commercial area -- about five square miles from the Back River east along Eastern Boulevard to Marlyn Avenue.
The county this week asked its 85 community patrols to increase their presence during the holidays.
"A lot of people really get into it," said Sgt. Charles Schuster of the Essex Precinct's Community Outreach Unit. "They find it's ,, one way to get out and get involved. You don't need a whole lot; just a few dedicated people can do a lot."
The Citizens on Patrol program began in Northwest Baltimore and spread into the county about 12 years ago, said Detective Sgt. Janet Stabile of the county police Youth and Community Resources Division.
Baltimore County has become Maryland's most successful jurisdiction in community patrols, Sergeant Stabile said, noting that she has had calls from as far away as Hawaii and Afghanistan for how-to information.
The patrols can reduce crime by 70 percent, she said, and cost about $2,000 for cellular phones, hats, signs for the vehicles and a few training sessions.
"We ask them to handle the high times -- evenings and late nights on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, sometimes Sunday," Sergeant Schuster said. "We teach them what to look out for. A subject walking down the road and not doing anything, you don't call us.
"We don't want them to be vigilantes," he added. "We just want them to call and say there's a problem -- just to be the eyes and ears."
If the patrolling members do see anything suspicious, they call the person manning the base, who decides whether to call the police. That's usually Mr. Cochran. "I sit at my base unit and I hear things other people don't," he said. "When they give me a street name in Essex, I know right where they are.
"The people are so nice. People living nearby that you didn't know -- all of a sudden you know everybody, and you find out they're just as nice as you are. It's getting my community closer, and we enjoy each other's company."
His group has one regular patrol member in his 80s. A younger man who initially agreed just to ride along and keep the octogenarian company "hasn't missed a Saturday yet," Mr. Cochran said.
The group has looked for a missing child, helped a woman with a flat tire, kept an eye on the school grounds and reassured workers at an all-night gas station.
Essex Precinct Capt. James W. Johnson termed Mr. Cochran "a success story," saying that while the patrol is small, "We're confident Dan's group is up and coming."