For the last three months in Sandy Springs, a yellow Ford 350 truck has provided jumpstarts and tire changes to motorists whose cars have broken down.
But this truck is not manned by police officers. The Ford 350 is driven by volunteer Citizens On Patrol, who dedicate more than 36 weeks of training in law enforcement without ever intending to become a police officer.
In Sandy Springs, getting to ride around in the Ford 350 starts with the citizen’s academy. Men and women who complete the 12-week citizen’s academy are eligible to patrol the streets in their own Citizen On Patrol cars, issued by the department. The 12 volunteers operating the Ford 350 signed up for an additional 12 weeks of training after completing the COPs training.
The idea for the program dates back to 2008. Jeff Holmes, a retired FBI agent, joined Sandy Springs police on a part-time basis and then moved into leading the COPs program. Now, Sandy Springs has 35 graduates of the program who each volunteer to work about eight hours a month, Holmes said.
While the citizen’s academy teaches about the police department and how it operates, the COPs are out there “hands-on to help the officers,” Holmes said.
COPs help by allowing sworn officers to do the “real police work,” Holmes said, while volunteers block the street where an accident occurred or warn other motorists about a downed power pole or tree.
“They’ve got the normal radio that police carry and the computer like normal police have, so they hear ChatComm, the 911 system,” Holmes said. “[Volunteer COPs] can notify ChatComm that they are there to help. If it’s a minor thing we’ll call ChatComm, and one of the response vehicles can meet them instead of an officer.
“In 2014, we provided about 7,400 patrol hours through volunteers,” Holmes said. “[That is a] pretty significant number because it allows sworn officers to get out on high priority calls. Leave the rest to us.”
Mark Thomas was in the second 12-week citizen’s academy class, graduating in the fall of 2009. The first class graduated at the end of March 2009. A group of graduates from the first two classes wanted to learn and do more, he said.
“The COPs program went live in August of 2011,” Thomas said. “The function is to be more eyes and ears on the street. We can see more things. We can do more things. We can assist the police officers in Sandy Springs.”
Thomas said he had volunteered with fire departments in other states, but Capt. Steve Rose, of Sandy Springs, encouraged him to “try the blue side instead of the red side.”
Part of the rules for volunteer civilians is to always ride with a partner, Thomas said. “No matter what it says on the car, citizens think we are the real police and we aren’t,” Thomas said.
Thomas learned that as a volunteer, he and his patrol partner could be first at the scene of an accident. On one occasion he heard a call on the dispatch system about a man with a gun.
“Normally, we would head the other way,” Thomas said, “but it just so happened we were right in the parking lot so we backed away.”
An art student was carrying a long tube for artwork and someone saw it and thought it was a gun, Thomas explained. “You have to be very aware of what’s going on,” he said.
Thomas said the group of volunteer COPS “is an eclectic group of people, with retired people and those who are still working,” he said. “One person is a pilot, and we have attorneys, an accountant, and a very unique blend of people.”
As much as the volunteers want to help, they don’t get involved in dangerous situations, Thomas said.
“We are on the edge and the periphery, but by being extra eyes and ears on the street, we help police officers,” he said. “Why should an officer sit for 30 minutes waiting on a tow truck? In that way we make our officers more efficient.”