They are the ones that police and public safety departments can’t afford to lose: Volunteers.

As cities and police departments cut their budgets during times of economic downturn, volunteers who perform myriad duties for no pay while putting in hundreds of hours each year are more valuable than ever and now perform jobs that full-time personnel used to do just a few years ago.

While paid positions have become harder to get, the need for volunteers has remained steady.

In the last month alone, the Chandler Police Department announced it has a need for motorist assistance volunteers that help people with vehicle trouble or at accident scenes while wearing policelike uniforms and communicating on radios.

Mesa police are accepting applications for volunteer reserve officers.

On Feb. 23, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors announced a Deputy Constable Reserve Program to allow the use of unpaid Arizona Peace Officer Standard and Training-certified deputies to perform duties such as delivering eviction notices and serving orders of protection.

And, just last week, the Mesa Police Department filled a criminal intelligence assistant position in its felony crimes unit with an unpaid volunteer.

That person, who has 30 years of experience in the military and formerly worked for the CIA, will assist detectives and police investigators in the follow-up of cases by producing intelligence and tracking information with databases, computer checks, intelligence information packets to assist in the apprehension of wanted felonies, risk assessments and crime lab requests.

“We’ve come quite a ways,” said Linda Bailey, volunteer coordinator with the Mesa Police Department who began serving as a volunteer in 1985. She began as a records technician and later volunteered as an administrative assistant in the hiring unit of the communications department.

“There are a lot of people who are a major asset to our department,” Bailey said. “I don’t know where we’d be without them. Knowing the paid positions we don’t have or no longer have, I look around, and think, ‘Thank God these people are here,’ or some of these jobs wouldn’t get done. The jobs volunteers do take a lot of time. Unlike these ‘CSI’ crime shows, crimes aren’t always solved in an hour.”

Specialized service

Police departments throughout the East Valley have had organized volunteer programs for slightly more than two decades. The Mesa Police Department leads the way with 141 volunteers; Tempe has 120, and Gilbert has 75.

Chandler has 64, according to spokespeople and volunteer coordinators for those departments. Volunteers serve as advocates for crime victims. They lift fingerprints from criminal damage incidents, auto burglaries and other crimes as crime scene technicians. It’s the only police department in the East Valley to use volunteers for that function.

There are even volunteers who drive police cruisers through hotspot areas where criminal activity lurks — more of a deterrent than anything else, while perhaps hoping possible perpetrators won’t notice the large black print on a sign in the window: “Police Volunteer.”

But police volunteer programs didn’t start out as a big deal early on and the number of volunteers for each police department in the East Valley could be counted on one hand.

“I was just looking for something to do,” said Wava Hightower, a 16-year volunteer with the Mesa Police Department, who drives the department’s bait cars back to a maintenance garage for recharging each week.

Hightower has performed a number of duties through the years. “It’s been a never-ending, very interesting type of thing,” Hightower said. “When we got to drive the patrol cars as volunteers, we made our presence known.”

What began in 1990 with about a half-dozen people in Mesa — mostly helping with parking duties during special events, performing clerical duties and offering crime prevention tips — has developed into dozens of volunteers, who in many cases perform specialized duties. That number is up from about 20 three years ago and consists of a wide range of people — college students seeking internships to gain experience in preparation for a career in law enforcement, senior citizens simply looking for ways to help and retired law-enforcement officers who offer expertise in helping to solve crimes. The department receives about 45 applicants for each volunteer posting, according to Bailey. The finalists have to pass a background check and complete 80 hours of classroom training and 40 hours of field training.

Volunteer work is valued at $18.75 per hour in Arizona, and the national hourly average is slightly more than $20, according to statistics from the National Volunteer Organization based in Washington, D.C.

A few years ago, Hightower was one of six volunteer license plate readers who scoured plates for stolen vehicle license numbers. Arizona used to be the No. 1 state in the country for auto theft (now, it’s Nevada) and in addition to parking bait vehicles throughout the city’s  known auto-theft areas, reading plates was a big thing.

“We would run 4,000 plates in four hours,” Hightower said. “Some days you’d get lucky, other days you didn’t.”

Tempe’s volunteers serve in 50 different functions and worked 11,000 hours last year.

The number of police volunteers in that city has remained steady for the last few years under six-year coordinator Christine Kling, according to Tempe assistant chief Angel Carbajal.

While motorist and crime victim advocates remain busy volunteer positions, the department also has city-certified Spanish interpreters.

“We’re fortunate we have a lot of people to serve as volunteers with the department,” Carbajal said. “Our ultimate goal is to provide a service to the community, and the volunteers are an intricate part of that. It always amazes me how much they can do. It allows us to focus and re-prioritize our police resources.”

But relying on volunteers also has its pros and cons.

“If you have a function that is completely dependent on volunteers, and when something comes up in their life or they are unable to do it, it becomes challenging,” Carbajal said.

Giving back

Doris Cornett, 83, has helped the Tempe Police Department overcome some of those challenges. A retired principal from the Tempe Elementary School District, Cornett began volunteering as a victim advocate after one of her teachers was informed by telephone that her husband had died in a car crash.

“I thought there had to be a better way,” said Cornett, who volunteers about 125 hours a year. “If someone told me that I would be doing this for 22 years, I would’ve said no way. I have dealt with a lot of grateful people who are always appreciative. There’s a lot of satisfaction in giving back.”

Chandler currently has 64 active volunteers in its 19-year-old program, and overall has had 650 volunteers serve since the program’s inception in 1992, according to Detective Frank Mendoza.

Tempe, Chandler and Gilbert currently do not have any police volunteers that work crime scenes as Mesa does, but the department has discussed the possibility of creating crime scene technicians where volunteers could assist in this area, Mendoza said.

Instead, volunteers in Chandler mostly serve in road-related areas such as on the DUI Task Force by helping set up and operate the command post and assisting officers with the booking process.

The department also has fleet assistants for its vehicles. Volunteers assist the fleet officer with transporting vehicles to and from the yard for maintenance. They also assist with special assignments such as transporting vehicles to the calibration testing station.

Reasons for serving

Chandler police Detective David Ramer, who was hired as an officer for the department 11 years ago, started as a volunteer in 1997 when he was working for a local pool company and attending Arizona State University. Ramer first served as an investigative aide to the financial crimes unit, then as a victim services volunteer to help victims of traumatic crimes and events.

Ramer, who said volunteering for a police department is valuable, has a personal connection to a violent crime that helped bolster his decision to go into law enforcement: When Ramer was going through the Chandler police academy in the late 1990s, his aunt was murdered during a robbery.

During the time he was a college student at Arizona State University, Ramer responded to traumatic events for residents that included victims of robbery who were locked in a freezer, suicides and fires.

“It’s helpful because you get to know the people in the department and see how the department is run,” Ramer said. “It’s also a good way to see what kind of person you are.”

After earning a degree in sociology with a concentration in organizational issues and completing the academy, Ramer was hired full time by Chandler.

“And I’ve loved it ever since,” Ramer said.

• Contact writer: (480) 898-6533 or

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