A new arm of law enforcement hit the streets in Harlem on Friday.
Volunteers in the Har-lem Department of Public Safety’s newly formed Citizens On Patrol program began patrolling city streets.
“This is not a response to any overwhelming crime trend,” Chief Gary Jones said, adding that the program is part of the department’s commitment to community policing. It’s a tool to help “promote transparency, cooperation and partnership with the community.”
A dozen people volunteered to become COP officers and patrol the city in four-hour shifts.
Melissa Turner and Rhonda Bouthry took the first shift Friday.
“It’s something that’s exciting for me,” said Turner, a stay-at-home mother. “It’s something that I can do for Harlem to give back and make it a better place.”
The pair rode the streets looking for anything suspicious and stopped in at local businesses such as It’s a Man’s Place and Lucky Lady Pecans to introduce themselves.
“I’ve really been overwhelmed with how much support we’ve had so far,” Turner said, adding that they got nothing but waves and smiles as they patrolled. “I don’t think we’ve had one ugly look or anything. It’s all been positive.”
Jones said the volunteers, led by retired law enforcement officer from Florida Jim Rowe, went through training in observation techniques, radio procedures, operation of the vehicle and policies and procedures of the unit.
The volunteers are an extra set of eyes and ears for law enforcement.
“A lot of times, something might not look necessarily suspicious to an ordinary citizen,” Jones said. “But from a law enforcement aspect, it may be. So we went a little bit further into that.”
COP volunteers patrol the city in a surplus patrol vehicle that was retrofitted with amber lights. The siren was disabled, but the volunteers have portable and in-car radios. They have no arrest powers, but have direct contact with officers on duty.
Bouthry said she lives in Dearing, but spent several years in Harlem growing up and worked as a dispatcher and jailer in McDuffie and Taliaferro counties. She wanted to be a part of the program.
“I think it’s a wonderful thing that Chief Jones is doing,” Bouthry said. “I think a lot of other city departments and county departments need to do the same thing.”
Bouthry said she thinks the program is valuable for gathering information, especially from those leery of law enforcement.
“Some people don’t feel comfortable speaking with law enforcement,” Bouthry said. “We can be like the in-between person if need be.”
Jones said anyone is welcome to join the unit. All volunteers must go through a thorough background check to include their criminal history, driver’s license history and a urine test for drugs.
Anyone wanting to join the COP program should contact the Harlem Department of Public Safety at (706) 556-6262.