Twice a week, Roy Osborne puts on a light blue uniform and climbs into a large SUV to begin his patrol, looking for wrecked or abandoned vehicles.
Osborne, 69, is a volunteer for the Lincoln Police Department, which has turned to an army of retirees to beef up its presence.
No previous law enforcement experience is necessary because volunteers don’t carry weapons or make arrests. They logged 8,992 hours last year in roles such as staffing the front office, traffic control and parking enforcement.
The volunteers are an invaluable part of the police force in a city that has struggled to fund public services since the recession. Most, including Osborne, live in Sun City Lincoln Hills, a retirement community that attracts retired professionals from across Northern California.
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“They’ve become part of the organization’s culture,” said Lincoln Police Department Chief Rex Marks. “These are former CEOs ... they come in with a whole different skill set than what we typically encounter, and they’re able to benefit us greatly.”
After peaking in 2008 with 43 sworn officers, the department has shrunk to 19 today, representing a ratio of 0.3 officers per 1,000 people. Marks said the standard in Placer County is a ratio of 1.1 officers per 1,000 people. With staffing levels so low, Lincoln police officials say the volunteers provide much needed manpower in the city of 45,000.
As a parking enforcement volunteer, Osborne handles a job that otherwise might be overlooked in the cash-strapped department. On a recent weekday morning, the Chicago native scanned a list of resident complaints before heading out to investigate the claims.
When Osborne finds a potentially abandoned vehicle, he marks the tires with a piece of bright yellow chalk and returns later to see if the vehicle has moved. Though he doesn’t have arrest powers, Osborne can issue citations, which he writes on his steel-gray clipboard.
After tagging a white sedan wrapped in a plastic vehicle cover, Osborne made a point of leaving the residential street soon afterward. He said volunteers are told to avoid confrontation.
No volunteer has been involved in an incident or accident since the program’s inception, according to Rich Ragan, 77, a founding member of the Lincoln Police Volunteers who coordinates the program.
Osborne has completed 7,000 hours since joining the department in 2003, when the Lincoln Police Volunteers program was created. Of the current 43 volunteers, almost all of them are retired, ranging from 42 to 80 years old.
Asked why he decided to volunteer, Osborne smiled and said, “Retirement is not all that it’s cracked up to be. After you’ve done everything ... you realize you have absolutely nothing to do.”
Aside from parking enforcement, volunteers conduct patrols by car and bicycle, alerting dispatch and police officers of problems. They also close city streets for festivals and inspect golf carts in the Lincoln Hills community.
“We are the eyes and ears for the department,” Ragan said.
The threadbare police force has also resulted in the frequent use of overtime, Marks said. The city spent more than $800,000 on staff overtime in the last five years, according to payroll records.
The 8,992 volunteer hours completed last year were valued at more than $217,000 based on federal estimates of what a volunteer’s work is worth, according to Marks.
John McGinness, a former Sacramento County sheriff and a consultant for the California Peace Officers Association, said volunteer programs are a good idea with “a few caveats.”
“First of all, it’s a force multiplier,” he said. “The caveat is you want people who are carefully vetted and have the right mindset to serve in that capacity.”
McGinness added, “When all that’s checked and vetted, it’s a net positive.”
Lincoln police require that volunteers be at least 21 years old, live within city limits, pass a background check and undergo training.
Other agencies in the region, including Roseville, Rocklin and Sacramento, also have volunteer programs. Like Lincoln, the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department uses volunteers at its service centers, according to volunteer coordinator Cindy Burdette.
Osborne said volunteers get as much out of the program as the Police Department does.
“It gets you off your butt,” he said. “The last thing you want is to be sitting in front of a TV and losing your mind. Once your mind goes, everything else goes.”