July 20, 2005 - Bob Salerno and Gene Rohrbaugh claim the Marana Police Department has one of the best volunteer patrols in the business.

While that may be the opinion of two Volunteers in Police Service, it's hard to argue with the two seniors who've actively patrolled their Sunflower community for the past year.

"We just try and help out wherever they need help," said Salerno, a retired contractor from Chicago who said he needed something to do besides play pinochle and bocce ball in his spare time. "It keeps us busy and it's fun to do. I find it very rewarding."

Since the first group of volunteers graduated from its police training classes a year and a half ago, the VIPS program has trained and mobilized more than 85 volunteers in Marana.

Officer Lori Sheppard said the volunteers saved the department about $1,500 during the first year by doing many routine jobs, such as traffic control, and serving as security at special events. And with more volunteers being trained all the time, the benefits to the department continue to grow.

"It's encouraged a lot of people to get involved and stay more alert about what's going on in their community," she said. "I know it's helped our department."

As a community resource officer, Sheppard is responsible for training the VIPS, who spend about 40 hours learning the ins and outs of the department before they're let loose in the field. After that, they must spend 20 hours patrolling within the walls of their community before they're allowed free reign throughout Marana.

Unarmed, the VIPS are the eyes and ears of their community, serving as an aggressive neighborhood watch. Salerno said he clocked about 100 hours last year, and Rohrbaugh said he's volunteered about 50.

"It's unique to see that people would give that amount of time to their community," Sheppard said. "Just their dedication and the determination to make this work … it's something that should be commended."

There are about 35 volunteers in Dove Mountain and another 50 in Sunflower. The two units meet once a month with the department to keep updated on projects.

As part of the department's dark houses program, the VIPS regularly check on more than 150 homes from a list of people who have gone on vacation. They travel in pairs, and if they see something suspicious, such as an open door or a broken window, they call a patrol car to the scene.

Rohrbaugh said he recently checked on a home where he found the water system leaking. The owners of the home had left town and weren't going to be back until October, so he probably saved them from a hefty water bill, he said.

To get on the dark houses list, residents must call the Marana Police Department or visit the local community centers in Dove Mountain and Sunflower.

The VIPS recently attended a department meeting where they were briefed on issues relating to identity theft, just one of several areas they've been assisting in lately. The VIPS also are involved with the department's forensics unit and an Amber Alert unit that helps locate missing children while also helping with fingerprinting and data entry.

Salerno said he's been helping the department investigate an unsolved murder that happened 10 years ago behind the McDonald's restaurant on Cortaro Road.

"They take a look at the colder cases," Sheppard said. "Sometimes just brainstorming some new thoughts brings to light some things that might be beneficial or might have fallen through the cracks."

Two volunteers are helping the department's mounted officers patrol the Santa Cruz River on horseback.

The VIPS are helping the department create a new high-tech emergency response system that will change the way it handles emergency calls. They're downloading and storing information about all of the town's most vulnerable areas, including schools, churches and hospitals.

Other volunteers have been patrolling stores such as Wal-Mart and Target during the holidays, where crime rates are reported to have dropped when the VIPS were on the scene.

At the town's recent Independence Day celebration, Rohrbaugh helped out with traffic control while Salerno worked a five-hour shift in the command post. For all the time they've given, their reward is knowing that they've helped their community.

"It's kind of entertaining and fun to see their personalities come through," Sheppard said. "We just make sure they have fun because that's what the program's about. This program really is what they put into it, and they've made a huge impact."

For those interested in getting involved, new training classes begin Aug. 9. For more information, call the department at 382-2000.

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