Police car No. 1288 rolled up to what was left of the old mill, still smoldering from a major fire the night before in south Gastonia.
Doug Carpenter and Randy Kistler stepped out in their new uniforms.
They looked sharp in light-blue short-sleeve shirts and navy pants, the same kind worn by Gastonia police officers.
But Carpenter, 61, and Kistler, 49, weren't regular cops. They were volunteers with the Gastonia Police Department's recently organized Citizens on Patrol unit.
I'd planned to ride with them around town on their first day of duty. But the blaze that gutted a vacant mill building had changed the schedule. As fire investigators combed through the brick rubble, Carpenter and Kistler worked traffic control at the intersection.
Not the most glamourous job.
But the volunteers freed up a Gastonia officer posted at the same intersection and let him get back out on the road.
I'd wanted to meet folks in the new police program ever since I'd found out about it a few weeks ago. COP instructor Patrick Daley had explained that volunteers save police departments in North Carolina about $18 for every hour they work.
To qualify, volunteers had detailed background checks and drug tests. They spent 21 weeks in training and studied everything from basic first aid and traffic direction to patrol techniques and effective communications.
Nine people, including four women, graduated from the first Citizens on Patrol academy. They came from all kinds of backgrounds – from business to teachers; some were retirees.
COP volunteers have their own distinctive uniforms and share a patrol car with an orange light instead of a blue one on top. They'll work a minimum of eight hours a month on such tasks as checking banks, ATMs and schools. They'll do handicap-parking citations, traffic control and help at special events. On holidays, they cruise shopping malls and give shoppers a greater sense of security.
Volunteers carry whistles and radios but no weapons. They can't take any kind of law enforcement actions.
Their job: observe and report.
Carpenter and Kistler showed up for their first duty shift after a good night's sleep and solid breakfast.
They'd need it.
The day would be long and hot and tiring. Sweat was already rolling down my back shortly after 9 a.m., when they got to the fire scene.
Car 1288 looked new, but they told me it was a patrol vehicle that had gotten a new coat of paint.
Carpenter, a cement salesman, said his son, Doug, is a detective with the Gastonia Police Department.
The COP program was going be a big bite out of his time, but Carpenter said he wanted a better understanding of how the police department worked. Plus, he was looking for a way to give something back to the community.
“If I wasn't doing this today, I'd probably be out hitting some golf balls,” said Carpenter, who'd taken a day off from his regular job.
Kistler is a production assembler at the Freightliner plant in Mount Holly. His son, Travis, is in Explorer Scout Post 515, sponsored by the Gastonia Police Department. Kistler likes to camp, fish and ride trail bikes. (He even raced late models on dirt tracks in his younger days.)
After the 9-11 terrorist attacks, Kistler said, he became more aware of his surroundings and began looking for an opportunity to serve the community. He was too old to join the military. So he watched and waited. And the right opportunity finally came along: Citizens on Patrol.
In training, Carpenter and Kistler rode with police patrol officers and got a firsthand look at some of Gastonia's mean streets.
Drug deals. Prostitution. Domestic violence.
“A lot of things that in my neighborhood you don't see,” Kistler said. “It'll open your eyes.”
Carpenter and Kistler spent most of the day at the intersection.
Nothing much happened. Wisps of smoke curled out of the old mill. A few passing motorists stared at them. Time dragged, and the sun kept getting a little hotter.
Carpenter described the shift as “monotonous and boring.”
But it was also satisfying.
The two volunteers went home around 6 p.m. feeling like they'd made a positive contribution.
They'll be back on duty again soon – whenever they can find enough time.
Carpenter and Kistler said they have the support of their wives in this new commitment, and that it's the right fit for them.
Around the region, other police departments are tapping into that same kind of commitment from volunteers.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, with about 1,600 officers, started a COP program five years ago and has 40 volunteers, according to COP coordinator Chris Perez.
A new Citizens on Patrol unit recently began in South Charlotte, joining existing COP efforts in Steele Creek, North and University divisions.
Up in the Rutherford County town of Lake Lure, a 2-year-old Citizens on Patrol program is barely hanging on. The unit originally had six volunteers, but the number has dwindled to two.
Police Chief Eric Hester said everybody was gung-ho at first, but interest faded. Even so, he won't shut down the unit because it's still a valuable service for the 10-officer department.
I hope Lake Lure's COP program rebounds, and I hope the programs in Gastonia, Charlotte and other police departments around North Carolina stay strong.
Interest may come and go. Volunteer ranks may fluctuate. But every little bit helps.
Joe DePriest: 704-868-7745; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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