By Linda Thompson
Despite more than four years of operation with no problems or issues reported, the Harrisonville Board of Aldermen’s Public Safety Committee has recommended sweeping changes to the city’s Volunteers In Police Service (VIPS) program.
The committee met Oct. 18 to discuss the proposed changes on a subject that has become controversial in recent weeks after certain members of the board of aldermen began to question the need for the program and have questioned its value and certain procedures.
The VIPS program was initiated four and one-half years ago under the oversight of Police Chief John Hofer. Its purpose is to assist the Harrisonville Police Department with safety and security duties that are not perceived as requiring the presence of a regular police officer, such as assisting with special events, house and business checks and traffic control.
During last week’s meeting, City Administrator Happy Welch presented proposed changes to the manual, which in addition to other items, included who can be a VIPS volunteer, training and access to their equipment.
One of the first topics of discussion centered around the ability of VIPS volunteers to access their equipment ,such as safety vests, when they come on duty. Previously, volunteers had access to the police station, but citing security measures, volunteers will now be required to pick up their equipment in the garage area of the old police station.
This was a change from previous meetings when it was suggested a locker be constructed in the lobby area of the police station to hold the equipment.
One of the most controversial changes involved who can volunteer in the program.
Originally, people wanting to become VIPS volunteers could reside outside the city limits. Moving forward, volunteers must be residents of Harrisonville. It was noted, however, that people who are currently volunteers with the program will fall under a grandfather clause.
Committee member Judith Reece questioned the proposal and ask why volunteers have to live within the city limits? “Why are we keeping volunteers out?”
Mayor Brian Hasek said, “Harrisonville tax dollars pay for the program.”
Reece responded that, “It doesn’t make sense.”
The committee was told the budget for the VIPS program is $1,250 annually, $1,000 for uniforms the other $250 for miscellaneous costs. It was also noted that according to a time sheet tally, volunteers have contributed services valued at $21,000 to the city.
Staff has been working on a manual for the program for several months. Despite the fact the VIPS program is organized under the direction of the police department, using a program developed by law enforcement agencies nationwide including the Department of Justice, some members of the committee said they didn’t think the program was properly administered.
The most vocal opponent of the program appeared to be Alderman David Dickerson. Among his “concerns” were transparency and safety. He argued that the program’s meetings should be “an open process.”
Police Chief John Hofer explained the meetings are really training sessions, but Dickerson countered saying there needed to be minutes and a roster of attendees should be available.
Dickerson also asked about VIPS doing fingerprinting. Hofer said they do non-criminal fingerprinting and Ident-A-Kid fingerprinting.
Dickerson then questioned the use of a car saying, “They are not trained officers” and there is a risk if they get out of the car.
Welch said proposed changes to the manual include more reporting. According to the revised manual, the board of aldermen will require a quarterly report of the VIPS program detailing the types of activities they were involved with and man hours accumulated. Other report requirements are to include the number of residents assisted, other departments helped and any other factual information about the duties that benefited the community.
Another change will be aldermen will be barred from working in the program, a direct attack against Alderman Judy Bowman who helped develop the program and serves as coordinator.
Reece stated it looks as though the committee has a condescending attitude toward the volunteers.
“We need to spend time supporting them,” Reece said.
The motion to pass the manual on to City Attorney John Fairfield for another review passed with Reece voting no.