The Ashland Police Department's volunteer force does more than just look good in uniforms; they also save the city nearly $1 million annually.

Frank d'Entremont, a retired lieutenant who started the volunteer police service in 1984, said volunteers logged in 47,000 hours last year.

Police volunteers conduct foot patrols of the downtown and the Bear Creek Greenway. They conduct vacation house checks, provide security for special events, serve as couriers to the district attorney and sheriff's departments, and oversee the digital radar readout boards in neighborhoods where residents have expressed concerns.

"We couldn't [manage] without the volunteers' help," said Chief Terry Holderness. "Especially during special events like the Halloween parade and Festival of Light."

Holderness said all 26 of his officers are on duty at those events and still volunteers are needed.

"If they have to stand there blocking a street rather than patrolling the streets," he said, "it hinders their ability for effective policing."

Freeing up officers for other duties is exactly the point of the volunteer program, according to d'Entremont.

"They used to have to do everything we're doing now," he said. "The volunteers are instructed to not get involved in any potential situations. If they see anything unseemly, they call for back up on their radios and the police come immediately. They are serving as extra eyes and ears for the department; but we don't want any of them to get hurt."

Downtown patrol

The volunteers help ease the concerns of downtown merchants. Many business owners were demanding more of a police presence.

"Things were pretty rough in the Plaza area before we started. There was a lot of shoplifting, trouble with transients and some drug dealing," said d'Entremont.

Jeff Compton, owner of Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, said he's grateful for the volunteers presence.

"This summer there were a group of transients, up to 15 of them on some days, camped out on the Plaza right in front of my business. I stood there and watched them from my window dealing drugs. I called the police and they said they couldn't do anything about it unless there was proof of drug dealing. They also don't have the resources to have an officer staking them out all day.

"But then a uniformed volunteer showed up, sat on the bench all day and took a bunch of photos. I can't say with 100 percent certainty, but I think the volunteers were a big part of why that group moved out."

The merchants pitched in to encourage the volunteers to maintain a high profile on the Plaza.

"We used to only do the downtown foot patrol in the summer because we didn't have winter coats," said d'Entremont. "But the merchants called and asked us what we needed in order to patrol year round. When I told them we needed official winter coats, they all got together and bought them for us."

Home checks

— — Paul Checks a residence to make sure the doors are locked.

This time of year the volunteer force spends a lot of time checking homes left vacant for the holidays. Police say the effort helps reduce crimes before they occur.

"The vacation home check is probably the most popular of our missions," said Olaf Paul, coordinator for the program. "I'd say this program gets the most positive feedback from the public."

Paul said the volunteers don't just drive by the home.

"We go up and physically rattle the doors, walk around the house, check windows and all the out buildings," he said. "We've found quite a few open doors on our checks, usually because people are in such a hurry when they leave. But we've found transients in peoples' homes, we walked in on a burglary this year and I just found a broken window."

Beth Bornet has utilized the vacation home check since it began.

"They've done a great job. None of my neighbors live real close to my place. Plus, the shrubbery's grown too high. So I have peace of mind whenever I go on vacation. I think this is a tremendous thing for a group of volunteers to do for the community," she said.

The Volunteers in Police Service, formally known as the Senior Volunteer Police, has 31 active members, 12 of those are women.

Work to go around

Program coordinators ask for a minimum of 16 hours a month from the volunteers.

"But because we're shorthanded right now, some are putting in 50 to 70 hours a month," said d'Entremont. "We're always in need of more. Most of our volunteers are senior citizens because they have more free time. But we'll take anyone who's interested."

Paul, originally from France, worked all over the world as an aircraft accident investigator before retiring.

"My wife and I were living in France. But she's American and wanted to come back to this country. We read an AARP article that listed Ashland as the 15th best place for a retiree to live. So here we are."

Paul recalls his first phone conversation with d'Entremont a couple years ago when he asked about the program.

"I told him I was interested but that I was a little concerned that I was too old. I was 73 at the time. Frank just busted out laughing. When he finally stopped, he said, 'I'm pushing 90 kid, you'll be fine.'"

Once applicants pass a background check, they then get fingerprinted, photographed, issued uniforms and trained.

Chief Holderness said, "This is a wonderful program and a great way to get involved with the community."

Ralph Wasche, 65, has a degree in criminal justice and worked as a police officer for the U.S. Air Force. He currently works as a courier who shuttles information from the District Attorney to the APD.

"I became a volunteer because I really just enjoy being around cops. But it was my wife who encouraged me to look into it. She was sick of me being underfoot after I retired."

D'Entremont is very glad to have Wasche "underfoot." He said he is very proud of is the district attorney courier program.

"In the past, three or four officers would be up in Medford filing paperwork when they should be patrolling Ashland," he said. "I went and met with a judge and the district attorney, asking them if we could start utilizing our volunteers. Now, one of our DA couriers takes the paperwork up every morning and the district attorney signs it," he said.

Anyone interested in volunteering for the program should contact Olaf Paul at 482-5211 x 2963.

Staff writer can be reached at 482-3456 x226 or .