By Valerie Lemke

May 21, 2010 5 min read

"We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give," Winston Churchill said of volunteering. By making that life, often after retirement, senior citizens can and do receive happiness and self-fulfillment in return.

The senior volunteers at the Palm Bay Police Department illustrate that fact. For 15 years, they have been an important adjunct to law enforcement in this Florida city.

They provide support to almost every area, says Dana Packard, community division manager of the agency and liaison between the volunteers and the department. "And the more we ask them to do the more they enjoy it."

In January 1995, the Palm Bay Police Department brought on board about 20 volunteers to assist the busy staff. They called it the Volunteer Citizen Observer Program, or V-COP, and the majority of the members were senior citizens.

Today there are 100 volunteers, ranging in age from 32 to 94. Ninety-five percent of them are 65 or older. The program is a win-win situation for both law enforcement professionals and seniors with the time and enthusiasm to give of themselves and their specific talents.

Dressed in a smart uniform of a light blue shirt, dark slacks, a hat, a jacket and shoes, the V-COPs are an impressive work force, and their aggregate duties are formidable.

In the beginning, most of the volunteers supported the technical services and clerical staff, but it became apparent early on that these men and women possessed skills extending far beyond the tasks they were asked to perform.

"They loved the work and were constantly looking for different ways to be of use," Packard says.

The volunteers graduated to such vital services as neighborhood patrols in marked V-COP patrol cars, fraud investigation, traffic control and crash reports.

"They also provide assistance with road closures and crime scene security and in emergencies, such as hurricanes, flooding and accidents," she says.

V-COP recruitment begins with a 40-hour training overview.

The trainees ride along as observers on police patrols, spend hours with the dispatchers and train in different departments. All become proficient in CPR and first aid.

After training, volunteers work in teams of two, going out on assignments for four-hour periods.

"With the slowdown in the economy, there's been a greater burden put on police agencies," Packard says. "In our city, we have 166 sworn officers for 107,000 residents, and there is no way we could meet the necessary level of service for our area without the competency of our volunteers."

The Volunteer Citizen Observer Program has become integral to the smooth working of the city's police department, she says.

Their efforts also are reflected in monetary benefits to the city. Last year, the V-COP racked up 25,031 work hours, saving the Palm Bay Police Department more than $500,000.

The camaraderie among the department, the city and the volunteers is palpable. An annual V-COP banquet is attended regularly by the mayor, City Council, the city manager and senior police staff. Volunteers and a guest are invited, and additional family members are welcome. The opportunity is accepted enthusiastically by many.

The highlight of the evening is the Volunteer of the Year award, honoring the overall contribution a member of the volunteer group has made. Officers, citizens and the volunteers are invited to send in letters of commendation and nomination.

"It's significant that every year, volunteers nominate each other," Packard says.

Such is the success of V-COP that states throughout the country now contact the Palm Bay Police Department for information regarding the organizational policies and procedures for setting up similar programs in their communities.

Palm Bay is not the only successful agency prepared to offer how-to information. "There is a nice national community of people ready to help," Packard says.

"The caliber of our volunteers is second to none, and they play a critical role in the overall success of our agency," says Chief William Berger of the Palm Bay Police Department.

Packard concurs. "We are very blessed to have so many so eager and ready to help."





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