Police volunteers honored
Frank D’Alessio likes cops. Because of that, a group of dedicated volunteers now help the Vail Police Department with everything from record-keeping to crowd control.
That volunteer group, about a dozen strong, recently received the President’s Volunteer Service Award at a Vail Town Council meeting. All participants in the program received a certificate of recognition.
Like most volunteers, though, recognition isn’t much on the minds of those who volunteer at Vail’s cop shop. “The idea of helping an organization that could use the help appealed to me,” said Charlene Zent, a volunteer for the past couple of years.
The volunteer corps has been an organized group since 2000, but had its roots in D’Alessio’s efforts a few years before that. In 1995, D’Alessio, a retired businessman, was asked by police Commander Joe Russell to help out with some crime analysis work. D’Alessio was intrigued by the idea of creating a coherent whole out of facts, ideas and evidence that at times seemed unrelated.
The analysis work was interesting, and D’Alessio took to it. He also learned about the officers and their lives. He became especially fond of officer Ryan Cunningham, the officer who died in the line of duty in 2001.
In 2000, D’Alessio was asked to put together a volunteer corps, so he began recruiting among friends and neighbors. Working with Cunningham, D’Alessio helped put together a manual for other volunteers and the program was officially launched in February of 2001.
Since then, a core group has contributed thousands of hours of service to the department. That work has an estimated cash value of more than $55,000, according to federal labor figures for the value of volunteer work.
Volunteers help with just about everything but actual police work. Most involves paperwork, but there’s some on-the-street action as well. Volunteers are required to help street officers during special events including New Year’s Eve and the annual Safety Fair.
“We’ll help visitors with information they may need,” D’Alessio said. “We’ll help officers with crowd control, too, in a non-law-enforcement way.”
To help volunteers understand police work, the volunteer group hosts citizen police academy classes for newcomers. During those classes, participants get a cop’s-eye view of police work. “Every academy participant says how amazed they are at the job these officers do,” D’Alessio said.
While the academy details elements of a cop’s life, including a walk through a simulated crime scene, volunteers mostly help around the office. For instance, Zent has become a big help in the records department and with impounded vehicles. She has also helped with the department’s annual ski registration project.
“My nature is more geared toward records,” Zent said. “It’s just work that needs to be done.”
D’Alessio said volunteer Mabel Selak has also become a stalwart in helping keep records. “It’s meticulous work, especially when it involves evidence,” he said.
‘Pretty great bunch’
Kaplan, who became the program’s volunteer coordinator last year, helps ensure people get where they’re needed in the department. “It helps me feel more connected to the community,” Kaplan said. Her work, she said, also has given her a different perspective about cops.
“It’s quite interesting to see them as people,” she said. “This is creating a positive relationship between citizens and the police. It’s important.”
The tangible effect of the program, though, is keeping officers out of the office and on the streets as much as possible.
“Any shift has two or three officers on the street at any time,” D’Alessio said. “It’s a tribute that people think there are more than that.”
The program is also a tribute to Cunningham, who never had a chance to see the volunteer effort in full flower. Cunningham died on duty in May of 2001 when, working an accident on Interstate 70, he jumped a guardrail to avoid an oncoming truck. He wasn’t aware he was on a bridge, and fell 60 feet to his death.
D’Alessio’s fondness for the young officer is still apparent. The office for the volunteers is named for Cunningham, as is a bench near the Covered Bridge. “It’s a shame he isn’t here to see this,” D’Alessio said.
Russell is around to see the results of that early work, and he said he’s impressed.
“This is a pretty great bunch of people. They help us out in so many ways,” Russell said. And, Russell added, as people keep coming into the program, “We’re just glad it keeps growing.”