THE THIN GREY LINE: La Jolla’s volunteer senior patrol
Dexter LaPierre and his partner, John Fremdling, are pleasantly surprised when the 93-year-old shut-in they pull up to check up on greets them outside her Mt. Soledad house.
“Today, I feel good,” says the woman, who smiles brightly and, other than hobbling on crutches around her driveway, appears fine. “But two weeks ago, I had pneumonia.” LaPierre asks if she’d like to go inside and sit down.
“What?” she replies. “No, I don’t want to sit down. Sitting down is bad for the back. I like to stand up as much as possible!”
Checking up on the elderly and infirm — a free service called You Are Not Alone — is part of this Retired Senior Volunteer Patrol (RSVP) unit’s daily patrol around La Jolla and surrounding areas.
“We say ‘elderly,’ but some of them are our age!” Fremdling laughs while driving to their next destination. (He’s 75, LaPierre is 76. Both live in La Jolla.)
RSVP began in 1992 as a pilot program in Rancho Bernardo. Today, it’s more than 500 strong and growing. As a criminally understaffed San Diego Police Department (SDPD) continues combating crime across the City, these sympathetic seniors conduct non-confrontational patrols searching for people to help and suspicious activity to report. “We try to fill in wherever we can that saves police the time to do the more important things like responding to crimes and investigating,” La Pierre says.
Think of RSVP like added police eyes and ears, without added guns. (They’re not trained or licensed to carry on duty.) They also don’t add much expense, since their positions are 100 percent voluntary.
“When you go home in the evening, it is nice having the feeling that you accomplished something, that you helped your community,” LaPierre says. “You feel good.” LaPierre remembers stumbling upon a Clairemont traffic accident recently that had just happened. “Maybe because we were there and called an ambulance right away, we saved their lives,” he says. “Who knows?”
Today’s patrol, which begins and ends with washing the No. 6657 RSVP squad car at the SDPD Northern Division in UTC, is more typical. In addition to checking up on the out-and-about shut-in, LaPierre and Fremdling examine houses whose owners have reported going on vacation, eyeball elementary schools for adults who shouldn’t be present and stop at various banks to, as Fremdling jokes, “make sure nobody is running away from them with guns.” They also check for violators to cite for illegal handicapped parking, red zone violations and expired registrations. (And, although they don’t bust it out today, they normally employ a device that automatically scans nearby license plates for stolen vehicles to report.)
By the time they return their car at 3 p.m., after seven hours, LaPierre and Fremdling have come up empty on all counts. And that’s fine with them. “I’m never hoping for anything bad to happen,” Fremdling says. “But on some days, more happens than others. And the thing with us is that, whatever happens is always a surprise. So when I get home, I think, ‘Whoa, we had two stolen cars today and I got to put out cones.’”
Since the “job” involves spending the day confined and conversing with a partner, there’s also a decent amount of — shall we say — friendly chop-busting. LaPierre says he prefers to think of it as “sharing.” (Today, he “shares” with Fremdling the opinion that his driving habits leave significant room for improvement.)
“It’s serious work but we have fun doing a lot of it,” Fremdling says.
RSVP members come from disparate professions. LaPierre was in advertising sales for The San Diego Union-Tribune from 1960 to 2008, Fremdling was an interior designer. Surprisingly, none of the 45 RSVP officers at Northern Division are retired cops. “Policemen are trained to be policemen, and it’s way too hard for them to be non-policemen,” Fremdling explains. “We are trained to be non-confrontational. It’s OK to call in the burglary, but not to get caught up in it.”
Police maintain that patrols such as RSVP deter crime. “In fact, we’ve been told that the San Diego Police Department has one of the best, and the most prolific, volunteer systems,” Fremdling says. “It’s been copied by other states because it works so well.”
Although no specific deterrent statistics are available, the thinking is that criminals realize that, unlike a neighbor who must dial 9-1-1 and hope not to have to wait, RSVP officers have radios patched directly into police dispatch. “Because we don’t call them a lot, when we do, they’ll usually listen,” says LaPierre. “They’ll usually respond in two-to-five minutes.”
Although the job is voluntary, it comes with several non-negotiable qualifications. Successful candidates must:
1) be 50 or older;2) be able to work a minimum of three eight-hour patrol days per month;3) have a valid California driver’s license;4) be fit enough to get in and out of patrol cars, climb stairs, see and hear well and stand for two or more hours at emergency scenes; and5) not be convicted felons or currently on probation.
Qualified candidates enroll in a five-day training course taught by various police representatives. “We learn how to help them and stay out of their way,” Fremdling says.
For information on how to volunteer, call (858) 552-1711 or visit sandiego.gov/volunteer-program/retired-senior-volunteer-patrol