Police tap into power of volunteers

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."

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