Dennis McCarthy
award-winning Daily News columnist

Dennis McCarthy

The keynote address for the 8th Annual C-PAB Summit was delivered by the celebrated and award-winning columnist from the Daily News, Dennis McCarthy. He specializes in "good news" stories and believes there are plenty to be told.

Mr. McCarthy asked the group to let him know about individuals he might be able to feature in upcoming columns.

Here is his Daily News column from Sunday, March 24, 2002, the day after he appeared at the C-PAB Summit:

Fighting Crime from a Dumpster
By Dennis McCarthy

For the past 10 years, they've been spending a few hours a week hiding out on rooftops, behind park bushes, even in Dumpsters -- watching and waiting for the bad guys to make a mistake.

When they do, members of the Volunteer Surveillance Team working out of the Los Angeles Police Department's Devonshire Division are on a walkie-talkie to a nearby police unit waiting to make the pinch.

Team members are all private citizens who have been the LAPD's eyes and ears in thousands of arrests over the past 10 years -- graffiti taggers and street racers, along with rape and robbery suspects.

They've put in more than 30,000 volunteer hours, saving the department more than $1 million in salaries and benefits it would have had to pay officers for the same surveillance.

"I was always hoping the volunteers would outlast me, and they have," said former Devonshire Division Capt. Vance Proctor, who started the citizens volunteer program, and has since been promoted to commanding officer of LAPD's organized crime and vice units.

It was far from certain that the program would work back in 1992 when crime was skyrocketing in the Valley in the wake of declining police resources, Proctor said.

"We knew what the problems were and where, but we didn't have enough officers to send out," Proctor said. "So I decided to reach out to the community for help."

He scheduled a meeting and sought volunteers, sending out fliers to all the Neighborhood Watch groups in Devonshire's 56-square-mile patrol area, which includes Northridge, Chatsworth, Granada Hills, and parts of North Hills and Panorama City.

"I expected maybe four or five people to show up, but when I walked into the room, the place was completely packed with people wanting to get involved and make a difference in their community.

"It almost brought tears to my eyes," Proctor said.

In that roll-call room that night were Michele Doubet, Ken Spears, Sophie Barcy and Fred Rennwald -- all local residents who were fed up with crime and ready to help police do something about it.

"I got out of my lounger, and got involved," said Rennwald, who lives in Granada Hills. More than 50 people would ultimately get out of their loungers and join him.

Police trained the volunteers on radio and observational skills, and made it clear they would be used for support only, that they were not to get involved in any arrests or confrontations themselves.

Before long, Doubet, a substitute teacher, was known around the Devonshire police station as the "Dumpster Lady."

"I've gotten a lot of (graffiti) taggers that way, hiding out in Dumpsters," she said, laughing. "They never see me.

"We've been on many rooftops in the rain, the shoulder of freeways looking for taggers, and sat in Chatsworth Park a couple of nights to get a serial rapist," Doubet said.

Sophie Barcy's first assignment was with Rennwald, hiding out on the rooftop of a medical building on Chatsworth Street, looking out for a guy who had been shooting out windows in the area.

"It was about 1 a.m. on a Thanksgiving weekend, and I saw this man walking down the street stop in front of a hardware store," Sophie said. "I nudged Fred, and told him I thought the guy was up to something."

Sure enough, the man threw a brick through the window, and went inside. A few minutes later, he walked out with a trash bag full of stolen goods -- and right into the arms of the police officers Sophie and Fred had alerted.

"It makes you feel pretty good when you pick up the Daily News the next day, read the crime story and know you played a big part in stopping that crime," Rennwald said.

Spears, an animation film producer who is the group's video expert, says people don't quite believe him when he describes how he spends a couple hours a week of his spare time.

"They look at you and go, 'Wow, that sounds exciting; I'd like to do something like that,"' he says.

"But when you start telling them about all the hours you're out until 3 a.m., and nothing happens, well, they never seem to follow up and join the program," Spears said.

While other police divisions have tried to adopt the format of the successful Volunteer Surveillance Team at Devonshire, most have faltered and disappeared over the years, said Lt. Joe Eddy, now in charge of the program.

Devonshire keeps going strong, though, and today, the program celebrates its 10th anniversary with a party for all the private citizens in the division who have gotten out of their loungers to help police do something about crime in their community.

It takes a special kind of person to give up his spare time to sit up on a rainy rooftop all night, said Doubet.

"You can't stereotype it, though, because we're from all walks of life -- young and old, different races and religions," she said.

"But we all have one thing in common: We all want to do more than just complain. We want to help."

Sophie agrees. "I know a lot of marriages that haven't lasted this long," she joked. "In 10 years, none of us have ever been injured or compromised, never felt threatened."

"We all still feel the same way we did 10 years ago when we joined," Sophie said. "We can't wait for that phone to ring and have someone ask if we're ready for another detail."


For information on volunteering, call Lt. Joe Eddy at (818) 756-8291.


Dennis McCarthy's column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday in the Daily News -