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Police tap into power of volunteers

Alan U'Ren, 90, has been a volunteer for the Petaluma Police Department for the past 15 years.

Victoria Webb/For the Argus-Courier
Published: Monday, October 28, 2013 at 3:47 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, October 28, 2013 at 3:47 p.m.

Every Wednesday morning, Alan U'Ren, 90, slips into his crisp, white police shirt and thick, dark pants. He pins his gold Petaluma Police Department badge to his chest and heads to the station — just as he has done every week for the past 15 years.

“I try to arrive no later than 8 a.m. and I make it in on time most weeks,” he said. “After all, if someone like me doesn't do the job, who else will?”

The job that U'ren religiously shows up for isn't that of a police officer. It isn't even a paid position. Instead, U'ren is part of a growing number of Petaluma police volunteers — regular residents who offer their time to help keep the department running smoothly.

“Quite frankly, I don't know how we would accomplish most of the things we do without the volunteers and their help,” said Police Chief Patrick Williams.

Petaluma is one of many police departments across the nation that relies on volunteers to enhance the services it provides. Crippled by budget cuts, police say that volunteers help free up sworn officers from mundane duties, allowing them to focus more on serious calls. This year alone, Petaluma police volunteers have donated more than 4,054 hours to the police department — the equivalent of two and a half full-time employees.

“Some volunteers handle traffic control, some help us tow vehicles after arrests, others run paperwork up to the Sonoma County District Attorney's office, and others, like Al (U'Ren), do work for us at the station,” said Sgt. Marlin Christensen, who runs the volunteer program in Petaluma. “Whenever the volunteers are doing something for us, it means that an officer doesn't have to be pulled off the street to take care of that task. It's an invaluable service.”

Christensen currently oversees 46 police volunteers, 22 of whom are new trainees that came from a challenge issued by Williams when he took over the department last summer: recruit 100 police volunteers in 100 weeks.

“So far, we're about halfway there,” Williams said. “I'm hoping that we get the rest by the end of the year.”

Though that's a tall order for Christensen and Lt. Mike Cook — who oversees the chief's community policing program known as Petaluma Policing — Christensen says the citizens of Petaluma have proven themselves up to the task.

“We've had volunteers in the department for 16 years now, but only about 20 of them over these past several years,” said Christensen, who said that many former volunteers had quit coming during years when the department was so understaffed that it didn't have time to devote to the volunteer program. “But the people who do it never cease to amaze me. They are involved, they want to help and they love giving back to the community.”

That's the case for Petaluma resident Pat Wasik, who has been volunteering in the department's investigations unit for two years.

“After I retired from a long career as an executive assistant in banking, I started to feel like I wasn't accomplishing anything,” said Wasik, who retired from Wells Fargo in 2011. “This is a perfect way for me to get involved, help out and still feel needed without having to punch a clock.”

Wasik comes to the department for several hours a week. Her office skills have proven an important asset to the detectives. And though she doesn't often wear the volunteer's uniform, she still commands a great deal of respect.

Wasik sits in an office, joking with the officers she “keeps in line” as she pores over light blue file folders filled with paperwork for the city's sexual offender registrants.

“I really love it here,” she said. “I'm giving back to the community and helping the officers.”

It's also a major help to the investigations unit, since Wasik not only handles the sexual offender registry, but also the abandoned vehicle abatement and the department vehicle registration renewals.

The volunteer force currently includes nine police chaplains and nine community reserve officers, who have been more thoroughly trained in department protocol, along with the 22 new volunteers. The department recruits from its Citizen's Academy course, which gives Petaluma residents a look at the department's inner-workings during a nine-week class, and from Santa Rosa Junior College and Sonoma State University.

During the next few months, the new volunteers will finish their department training — getting to know the basics of the job — and then will be charged with implementing the new community-based volunteer program.

“We're exploring getting our neighborhood watch groups up and running again, and looking at putting in new programs,” said Christensen. “With volunteers, we get a chance to increase services way more than we do with paid staff. We're hoping to put together a program where volunteers check on elderly folks regularly and monitor houses when homeowners are away on vacation. There's a lot we can do, if we have the volunteers to do it.”

Williams said the need for volunteers in the department is vast. “We can always use more qualified, able people,” he said. “Not only does it allow for additional services and help out our officers, but it connects the department to the community, which is the whole point of community-based policing.”

And for the people who volunteer, their experience often becomes life-changing. U'ren, who spent much of his life teaching high school in San Bernadino and is local CSN Bay Area sports reporter Amy G, or Gutierrez's, grandfather, said that while he has friends he keeps in contact with from his education days, he never realized that he would develop a whole new family at the Petaluma Police Department.

“The people at the department have the biggest hearts of anyone I know,” said U'ren, who recently lost his wife and has come to rely on his time at the department to help him deal with his loneliness. “They're the nicest people I've ever met and they really let me feel like I have the run of the place.”

For more information on volunteering with the Petaluma Police Department, visit www.cityofpetaluma.net/police or call 778-4372.

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)

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