They’re not armed, and they’re not supposed to confront anyone. But in Omaha, several hundred citizens take turns patrolling their neighborhoods, in an effort to deter crime.
It's 9:00 p.m. on a Saturday night, and Judy Alderman and Jeff Ulrich are out cruising. It's no teenage lark. In their day jobs, Alderman coordinates tours for Joslyn Castle, and Ulrich is an insurance claims adjuster. But tonight, as the magnetic signs attached to Alderman’s red Toyota proclaim, they are the Bemis Park Citizen Patrol.
“We basically just look for anything suspicious: if there are cars parked with people sitting in them and they don’t look like people who belong in the neighborhood, or you know, occasionally we see people walking late at night, you know, just anything that looks suspicious,” Alderman said.
Bemis Park is an older neighborhood near downtown Omaha, with a mixture of both people and architecture. Whites, African Americans, Hispanics and Asians live here; a Lutheran church shares a parking lot with a Buddhist Temple, and grand old homes and duplexes are sprinkled together with a few businesses.
As they drive around, Alderman and Ulrich talk about what they’ve seen, and are seeing. “There have been a few times where we’ve seen activity in the park,” Alderman says -- “There are some people in the park tonight,” Ulrich interjects – “after the park was supposed to be closed,” Alderman continues. “And so we just call, you know, just to have the police check it out.”
That’s the point of citizen patrols, according to Omaha Police Sgt. Erin Dumont. “The idea is that you’re acting as a crime prevention tool, or a deterrent to crime in your neighborhood that kids tend to gather at, after hours or on the weekends or something.
“The citizen patrols, maybe they would go out, actually drive through the park. They’re taught to observe and report, never to actually confront anyone,” Dumont added.
Dumont says the patrols have been around since the 1990s, and now involve as many as 500 people patrolling 33 Omaha neighborhoods. While there has been interest elsewhere, so far, Omaha is the only city in Nebraska to have patrols, says Ryan Lowry-Lee of the University of Nebraska’s Public Policy Center.
Volunteers get a background check and about four hours of training from the police department. They’ve even gotten a little funding from the federal Department of Homeland Security --- about $4,800 for things like cameras, radios and recognition plaques, according to Lowry-Lee. Volunteers like Ulrich say their motivation is simple. “I think it’s the sense of contribution to our neighborhood as neighbors, and this is a kind of focused, proactive way that we can do that,” he said.
Around 9:40 p.m. – about 20 minutes after Ulrich and Alderman first saw the people in the park, they drive past again. “Do we still have our people in the park?” Ulrich asks. “We still have our people there,” Alderman replies.
Alderman slowed her car to a crawl, as Ulrich discussed the situation. “It’s just, y’know, people in the park. There’s nothing illegal about being in the park unless it’s 11 p.m. or later. So you just kind of…drive by and see if there’s anything that looks suspicious. If there is, then, y’know, examine it a little more closely and if it looks like it would warrant a call to the police then that’s what you would do.”
Ulrich and Alderman didn’t see anything that warranted a call. But they did cruise back by the park one more time about 20 minutes later. “They’re gone,” Ulrich says. “Yeah, apparently we scared them off,” Alderman says, laughing. “It’s cold. Too cold to stand outside,” Ulrich replies.
Ulrich says it’s hard to say why the people left, but they didn’t seem to be doing anything wrong. Alderman says if people are doing something wrong, they generally leave quickly when the patrol shows up.
It is also hard to say whether the people saw the Bemis Park Citizen Patrol sign on the car, as it crept slowly past the park. Making the patrol cars more visible is the subject of a bill in the Legislature this year, which would let patrollers use rotating or flashing amber lights on top of their vehicles if they’d like.
Omaha Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh, who introduced the proposal, said it was considered non-controversial. “The yellow caution lights are simply to alert people that the vehicles start and stop often, perhaps in traffic. There’s nothing more beyond it,” Lautenbaugh said.
Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers opposes Lautenbaugh’s bill. “If I could kill it, that’s exactly what I would do, because I think it’s preposterous,” Chambers declared. Chambers said he opposes the whole idea of citizen patrols. “No community should take upon itself the duty of police work. They should not be vigilantes. They should not be snitches and informants, because they have to live in that community,” he said.
Lautenbaugh says that is an overreaction. “Nobody’s talking about vigilantism here. I mean, these are unarmed people reporting things they observe. That’s an absurd definition of vigilantism,” he said, adding, “This seems like a knee-jerk reaction to a very valuable crime-fighting tool that does seem to work where it’s tried.”
The volunteers say they think they’re being effective, but attempts by NET News to document that one way or the other were not successful. Sgt. Dumont said she believes the patrols are deterring crime, but she’s not aware of any hard evidence.
As they near the end of their two hour patrol of Bemis Park, Alderman and Ulrich say they are satisfied with their night’s work. “There hasn’t been much excitement tonight. We didn’t see anything suspicious,” Alderman said.
“That is good,” Ulrich added.