The eyes and ears of our community see and hear all sorts of things, writes ANNA PEARSON.
Community patrol cars have clocked up more than 750,000 kilometres on the beat in New Zealand this year, with 17 volunteer groups in Canterbury - from Hanmer to Twizel - alone.
"We are a moving police sign. We are observers," says Allan Bain, a former chairman of the community watch group that looks after Christchurch city, Sumner and Lyttelton.
"If you are driving down the road, and you see a cop car, the first thing you do is look at your speedo," he says.
The group formed about 15 years ago by a group of people who were "a bit worried" about crime in the area. They borrowed a vehicle, stuck a magnetic sign on the door and it became a patrol car.
The group now owns three cars and has about 60 volunteers.
"If we see something strange or completely out of place we give the boys in blue a phone call and they turn up really quickly," says Bain.
"My wife refers to us as the Volunteer Dad's Army Police Force. As your hair turns white you get more time on your hands and care more for the community," he says.
Hornby Community Patrol volunteers once observed what looked like a person silhouetted against a light inside an otherwise unlit building and called the police.
A security guard, who arrived in the meantime, went inside and discovered a life-sized cutout of basketball star Michael Jordan.
And then there was the time Hornby volunteers stopped to talk to people who were having trouble starting their car. There was a reason. It was not theirs.
The secretary of the Hornby Community Patrol group, Ann Smith, has been a volunteer for 18 years. The group has 30 volunteers, aged 22 to 86, and one patrol car.
The volunteers leave notes on people's car windscreens - "Hey, we can see your cellphone" - and also report abandoned shopping trolleys and unlit streetlights in the suburbs," says Smith.
"You end up with a dark area [if the lights go out] and that can lead to someone thinking they may not be seen. That can lead to them committing a crime."
As for the abandoned supermarket trolleys, "it is easier to report a trolley before someone sets it on fire".
"The police tell us that every time we park up we prevent crime. We are not encouraged to put ourselves at risk, although I have been caught up in the middle of boy racers."
The Ashburton Town Watch Society is one of the country's longest-serving community patrols. It formed nearly 30 years ago.
Long-serving policeman Dave Ross, who became Community Patrols of New Zealand's (CPNZ) first national operations officer a couple of years ago, said police were "wary" of the eager volunteers at first.
"It was a little bit of, 'Who are these people? What are they doing? Are they vigilantes?' The police now consider community patrols as a prevention resource. Having that visible presence is very, very important," he says. "The focus of community patrols is prevention and is all about good people doing good things to keep their communities safe."
Ross says CPNZ now has strategic relationships with police and is supported by the Ministry of Justice.
"The relationship is such that I am hosted in the National Prevention Centre of Police National Headquarters," he says.
While community patrol volunteers were traditionally seen as the "eyes and ears" of the community only, they are becoming increasingly hands on - from providing foot patrols at the Wellington Sevens to assisting police with traffic at road incidents.
Bain says his community watch work has given him an insight as to where "interesting things" happen in his area. "If you are breaking the law, and a community watch car comes along, do you really want to be seen?"
BY THE NUMBERS
152 Community patrols in New Zealand
4568 Community patrol volunteers
750,636 National patrol kilometres travelled
97,004 National patroller hours worked
17 Youngest volunteer in Waitemata
89 Oldest volunteer in the Bay of Plenty
48.6 Average volunteer age
33,728 Total incidents recorded
Source: Community Patrols of New Zealand as at December 12
- © Fairfax NZ News
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