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Minus Guns and Badges, Volunteers Help Deputies Curb Crime

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The moon is full, the air is frigid and two pickup trucks have just collided head-on in the middle of Palmdale Boulevard.

One driver, wearing only jeans and a long-sleeve shirt, is shivering beside the wreckage. He stops to comfort the little girl who was riding beside him.

The other driver, who appears to be drunk, is sitting in the back of a sheriff’s patrol car, its light bar stabbing the darkness with blue, red and yellow pulses.

Behind the patrol car stand Mikie Nilsen and John Smeltzer, both in uniform, waving glowing Maglites at passing cars.

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Nilsen, whose flashlight batteries are nearly dead, almost loses a couple of toes when a distracted motorist turns too sharply. “You better get up on that curb,” Smeltzer urges his partner.

That wouldn’t have helped, Nilsen explains. “He drove over it.”

On this night, Nilsen and Smeltzer are pitching in to make Palmdale a safer community, even though neither is carrying a gun or a badge. Neither of them is getting any pay to stand outside in 30-degree temperatures, directing traffic, while two deputies measure skidmarks.

Nilsen and Smeltzer are members of VOICE, or Volunteers Organized to Improve the Community Environment, a sort of a Neighborhood Watch on wheels founded in 1992 to help deputies curb crime in fast-growing Lancaster and Palmdale.

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In uniform--white shirt, blue slacks and blue jacket with a Sheriff’s Department volunteer seal--they ride in cars bearing a VOICE identification looking for illegal activity, or working beside deputies in situations that are not expected to be dangerous.

They are given no weapons, just a police radio and a cellular phone.

When a VOICE member spots trouble, he or she uses the phone to call a deputy in a phone-equipped patrol car. The radio tells them what crimes the deputies are already responding to.

“They want us to know where all the bad stuff is going on, so we can steer clear of it,” explains Smeltzer. Steering clear of trouble is VOICE’s first rule. If volunteers see a crime in progress, they are not supposed to step in, just dial up a deputy.

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Exceptions are rare. A VOICE member might be told to use an extinguisher on a small trash fire. If there appears to be no danger, VOICE members might be told to follow a tagger from a safe distance while waiting for a deputy to arrive.

But overzealous cop-wannabes need not apply.

“I don’t want someone who’s going to jump out and say, ‘There’s a suspect, I’m going to grab him,’ ” says Deputy Paul Ullman, who oversees Palmdale VOICE. “They’re purely witnesses, someone to get hold of us.”

VOICE was put together after some Palmdale residents, eager to stop graffiti and gangs, organized a citizens patrol. Fearing these well-meaning residents might turn into vigilantes or interfere with deputies, the Sheriff’s Department took over the program, requiring background checks to exclude convicted felons and mandating uniforms for easy identification.

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The program now boasts more than 80 volunteers in Palmdale and Lancaster and is spreading to nearby unincorporated communities.

Civic pride is the reason most VOICE volunteers sign up. But during a ride-along, it becomes apparent that Nilsen and Smeltzer also possess deep admiration for the deputies and their work. A lot of police jargon slips into their conversation.

“Today at work, I was watching two guys punching a lock on a car,” Nilsen says, as her VOICE car approaches the pickup collision. “It was very forced-entry.”

If she were on a VOICE patrol, Nilsen could not intervene. But in her civilian role as co-owner of a small computer software firm, Nilsen asked the lock-punchers to prove it was their car.

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“I’m not one of those people who doesn’t want to get involved,” she explains.

In fact, Nilsen was the first Palmdale resident to sign up for VOICE. She is a trim 41-year-old marathon runner with dark, shoulder-length hair who says, “I feel like 18 inside.”

Smeltzer, 48, a telephone equipment technician, is an ex-Marine and Vietnam veteran with steel gray hair who seems as fearless as his partner. “I’ve been in heavy combat,” he says. “I’ve been outnumbered, outgunned but never outfought.”

As Nilsen cruises through the parking lot of the Antelope Valley Mall, Smeltzer keeps a sharp lookout for thieves. “We’re particularly watchful of ladies with big bags going to their vehicles,” he says. “They can be accosted unawares.”

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Had life been only slightly different, Nilsen and Smeltzer might be wearing pistols and badges themselves.

“Once I wanted to be a deputy, but it didn’t pan out,” Nilsen says. “My husband didn’t want me to do it. He was very concerned about my safety. Of course, we were newly married then. Now, 14 years later, he says, ‘Go get ‘em!’ ”

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Smeltzer says he applied to the Los Angeles Police Department after his tour with the Marines ended. He passed the physical, “but they took one look at my war record and said, ‘We don’t want no cowboys,’ ” he recalls.

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“They didn’t want someone to go shooting up the town just after getting out of the service.”

After the pickup collision is cleared, this night’s VOICE patrol is pretty uneventful--a car alarm sounding in a K mart lot, a car parked with its lights on in a rundown neighborhood, a check for signs of burglars in a housing tract plagued by break-ins.

No crimes to report, but the partners aren’t complaining.

“Many a night goes by when nothing happens,” Nilsen says. “Then you realize that something, maybe, was going to happen, and your presence stopped it. Just making your presence known may have stopped something from happening.”

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