By Gerhard Schneibel
gerhard@reporternewspapers.net

Residents of Brookhaven neighborhoods may notice a new type of patrol on the streets, one that gives them another way to combat crime and keep their neighborhoods safe.

The Volunteers in Patrolling (VIP) program offers citizens a chance to patrol their own neighborhoods in marked cars and look for suspicious behavior. Volunteers receive a VIP car magnet and vest, a county-issued cellphone, an ID card, and eight hours of training.

One of Steve Shaw’s neighbors, Alex McNeil, recently retired and began volunteering to patrol the area around their street, Fox Glen Court.

“We love it because it’s a dead-end street, but the neighbors were wanting to make things a little bit safer,” Shaw said. “It’s nice just to have everybody together, and it’s nice to have a VIP on the street. It’s just reassuring to know that everybody is looking out for each other.”

DeKalb County police reports recently became available online at www.dekalbpolice.com/crimetrac.html, and Shaw said neighbors noticed “crime seemed to be increasing and getting closer to our area.”

“When you see it coming your way, you want to be ready,” he said.

McNeil has lived on Fox Glen since 1985 and has patrolled the area the past six months. He saw the program advertised.

“It gets me out of the house a little bit,” he said. “I just keep an eye on the neighborhood.”

McNeil gets updates on crime trends from the Police Department and keeps neighbors informed about them. Around Christmas a rash of purse-snatchings occurred in nearby shopping centers, and he sent out a caution via an e-mail distribution list.

Al Fowler of the Police Department’s North Precinct described the VIP program as the “second layer of the neighborhood watch program.”

“It brings the partnership between the police and the citizens together,” he said. “So far. it’s worked out great, and I’m glad that it’s rolling out small because it’s something you want to kind of get your hands around.”

The program started in March 2008 and now has 25 volunteers, Fowler said. “It’s growing.”

He added: “With this program we’re trying to keep the community and the Police Department closer together.”

Sgt. Brian Calamease said the training for the volunteers includes a police ride-along “so they can kind of acclimate to what we’re looking for.”

Trainees also learn about constitutional law, police liability, how to recognize suspicious people and behaviors, and the use of police force, although the program is strictly nonconfrontational.

“It gives the neighborhood a sense of empowerment and gives them the feeling that they can take control of their neighborhood,” Calamease said.

When volunteers spot something suspicious, they can use their county-issued cellphones to call Interactive Community Policing, which isn’t 911-driven. They also are trained to call 911 in case a situation turns out to be more serious than initially thought.

Serious incidents haven’t been a problem for McNeil so far. He said that other than one instance in which someone was stealing from the mailboxes on the street, “for the most part, it’s been pretty quiet.”