Newport Beach Police Volunteers Build Important Bridge to the Community

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Newport Beach Police Volunteers Joel Gerson and Sandy Meadows / photo by Richard Simon

As a group, they visit and inspect more homes in more neighborhoods on a typical day than Newport’s busiest realtors.

Although there are sparse supporting statistics, these teams of two might very well be responsible for stopping more home burglaries than a stay-at-home Chihuahua with a megaphone bark and a Police Dog complex.

They’re the uniformed Volunteers of the Newport Beach Police Department: 12 women and 10 men, with four potential members currently undergoing background checks. They each pledge at least 16 hours a month to patrolling the breadth of the city “so that the NBPD can allocate resources more efficiently,” shared Heather Rangel, the PD’s Crime Prevention Specialist who oversees the volunteer program.

The purpose of the program is multifaceted, explained Rangel: “To enhance community engagement, support law enforcement efforts, and foster positive relationships between the Department and the community.”

Their responsibilities and assignments include conducting home vacation checks, distributing crime alerts, various in-house administrative functions, assisting in the property division (a basement room where a broad range of evidence and seizures are stored until deemed disposable), as well as helping at special events.

One of the PD’s greatest crime prevention tools is communications, and the volunteers excel in that effort, not only by patrolling in their specially assigned and marked SUVs, but by conspicuously assisting at the department’s year-‘round community events, such as National Night Out (a country-wide police appreciation event that highlights the full capabilities and services of the department), Open House tours, and the well-received Mobile Café, where the community gathers at various venues throughout the city to meet one-on-one the officers who serve — and where attendees can be served that historically cliched law enforcement “fuel,” coffee and donuts.

This coming August, NBPD Volunteer Sandy Meadows will have donated 25 years and nearly 12,000 hours to the program — a virtual “career” of volunteerism, having graduated from the first NBPD Citizens’ Police Academy (CPA) in 1999.

More than most sworn officers on the current roster, Meadows has served under six chiefs of police. Make that seven “chiefs.” Her father, Steve Podesta, retired as a Commander after 30-year service with the Pasadena Police Department.

For the most part, NBPD volunteers follow their defined responsibilities. But in 2023, in order to save the department nearly $50,000, Meadows went above and beyond the expected duty by donating nearly 1,000 hours of her at-home time to remove the embroidered names and service stars on police officer’s shirts and jackets. Few people can comprehend the yards and yards of gold thread that go into every star or letter, she explained, adding, “It’s a slow, painstaking process in order not to tear the fabric.” Fortunately, reapplication of names and hash marks was completed by machines at the uniform store. For the foreseeable future, Meadow’s digits are on extended leave.

What few know is that volunteers are required to undergo the exact background check as candidate Newport officers. Said Meadows, “I think it’s such an honor that we are vetted in order to wear the badge, that we represent the police to the public, and that we do things that support both sworn and civilian employees to facilitate their jobs. If everyone would go through the Citizens’ Police Academy, I guarantee that all would greatly respect the police, and see how many facets there are to being an officer.”

Unlike regular police with assigned beats and patrol areas, Volunteers range freely throughout the city; therefore, it is not unusual for them to be first to come across accidents whose victims require medical care, or discover open doors of homes that have been burglarized, or happen upon animals struck by vehicles in the middle of the road.

“Volunteers, as do regular police officers, understand that they must expect the unexpected,” program director Rangel said.

Ever since childhood, 79-year-old Volunteer Joel Gerson has been enamored by police work. He even considered a career in law enforcement in his hometown of Millburn, New Jersey, after college and a stint in the National Guard. However, lucrative opportunities in the field of benefits consulting influenced his career decisions.

In 2010, retired, curious and looking to fill time, Gerson conducted his own online “investigation” about the Newport Beach PD, where he learned about the volunteer program.

With 8,000 hours under the proverbial equipment belt, Gerson puts in up to 15 hours a week doing whatever has to be done — much beyond the normal patrol. This includes everything from conducting station tours, illegal sign removal, issuing open garage door warnings and/or informing citizens how risky it is to leave open garages unattended, and crime alert distribution.

Additionally, he and his fellow volunteers will monitor traffic, along with the thousand- plus kids on bikes who, like spring tides, flood the streets and beaches every summer for the Junior Lifeguard Program.

“I get a tremendous degree of satisfaction in the amount of impact I have on the PD and community,” Gerson said with pride, adding that “I’ve enjoyed so much camaraderie resulting in many friendships and opportunities.”

Those opportunities include an intimate knowledge of the intricacies of a police department, which allows him whenever possible to share with the community the services available to them.

In lifelong retrospect, Gerson admits with great admiration for law enforcement pros that “maybe I wouldn’t have qualified to be a police officer because of all the correct split- second decisions that they have to make on a daily basis.” Still, he said, being a police volunteer “gives me a great sense of purpose and belonging in the community.”

“It’s an inside job” is a phrase not exclusive to detectives. There are those indoor assignments which are ideal for the many talents offered by volunteer members. One such takes place in the Property Room — a basement storehouse crammed with evidence awaiting courtroom presentation, everything from confiscated narcotics to stolen antiques; weapons to cold, hard cash — all collected during crime investigations

Because of family schedules, the Property Room proved to be the ideal assignment for 83-year-old Marc Spiegel. Although he doesn’t actually touch the locked-up evidence (that’s the exclusive bailiwick of an “authorized” property manager), Spiegel focuses in the area of office supplies required by the various departments within the station. It’s a perfect fit, since the retired business owner understands the complexities of purchasing and inventories, supply chains, distribution and mark-ups.

One of his more satisfying moments as a volunteer, he recounted, came during the early days of the Covid crisis, when management asked him to order rubber gloves from the department’s usual supplier. Being in very short supply from extraordinary demand, the supplier jacked up the price by 40 percent. So on his own initiative, Spiegel hit the phones, ultimately finding another source who agreed to sell gloves of equal specs at 40 percent discount. Spiegel reprised that money-saving act with hard-to-find hand wipes that officers carry in the trunks of their patrol cars.

“I’ve learned a lot about the people working at the PD, and I haven’t met anybody who isn’t dedicated to their job,” Spiegel said. “I’m always greeted by a smile. Over the years in my business, I’ve signed a lot of pay checks, but I never ever got that kind of reaction.

Working at and with the PD has given me the opportunity to give back to the city I’ve loved since I first crossed the bridge to the peninsula as an 11-year-old in 1952.”

In addition to their varied roles, Crime Prevention Specialist Rangel sees her volunteers as “ambassadors, who promote a collaborative approach to public safety” and who “help the department allocate its resources more efficiently. Volunteers often take on tasks that do not require sworn officers’ involvement, and they act as a bridge between the department and the community. This is a group of dedicated individuals who generously contribute their time, skills and passion.”

Police Chief Joe Cartwright enthused, “Our NBPD volunteers are an outstanding team that works tirelessly for their community, and remain some of the most dedicated people I have ever met.

“They give so much of their time and love for our city, and serve as a force multiplier to achieve the daily mission of our department,” he added. “Their immeasurable support benefits us in so many ways, and I’m still amazed by the dedication evident in everything the NBPD Volunteers put their name upon.”

Before any person may be considered a Volunteer candidate, they must attend and complete the 12-week-long citizens’ academy. For more information, visit the website at https://www.nbpd.org/what-we-do/programs.

Editor’s note: Feature writer Richard Simon was a NBPD Volunteer for 11 years, from 2002 to 2013, and to date is the only volunteer to have been presented with a coveted Life Saving Award.

 

 

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