CHUGIAK -- On a sunny spring evening, the Birchwood Community Patrol rolls into the parking lot of a local park, where several cars sit idling. In short order, two vehicles full of teens decide the big green pick-up is an unwelcome neighbor and high-tail it out of the parking lot.
"That's pretty typical," says patrol member Jeff Hartley.
The two-man team sits in the parking lot a couple minutes more before moving on. Before the night is over, they'll put more than 60 miles on the pick-up -- stopping in parks, school parking lots and anywhere else someone might want to go to cause a bit of trouble.
Founded after a rash of burglaries in the South Birchwood area, Hartley said the patrol's main job is to provide a visible presence in the community that can keep an eye out for anything that seems out of place.
"All we are is extra eyes and ears for the police," Hartley said during a recent ride-along.
A year ago, the patrol received an $8,000 grant from the Alaska Legislature to help fund its operations -- which mainly consist of driving around Chugiak neighborhoods with their eyes peeled.
"It's kinda boring," Hartley said.
With fellow patrol member Tom Gregori at the wheel, Hartley explained that the patrol operates under the guidance of the Birchwood Community Council. He said the original idea came about after a string of brazen daytime burglaries threatened area residents' sense of well-being.
"We said 'enough is enough,' " he said.
Now, the group spends hours each day rolling around the streets of the sprawling area north of Eagle River.
Since the patrols began, Hartley said burglaries in the neighborhood have plummeted.
"Our main focus is on the daytime," he said.
Shifts can get dull at times, Hartley said.
"Coffee is my lifesaver," Hartley said.
"Coffee and hot dogs," Gregori added.
But, Hartley said, the whole idea behind the patrol is to provide a deterrent to crime -- not always the most exciting way to spend an afternoon or evening.
"I want it to be boring out here," he said.
Anchorage Police Department spokesman Lt. Dave Parker said crime statistics show the community patrol program has been proven to work.
"Crime diminishes when you have an active community patrol," Parker said.
Hartley said there are currently five members of the Birchwood patrol. All of them must first undergo a background check and training that includes a ride-along with a police officer, Hartley said.
In addition to cruising neighborhood streets looking for anything out of place, Hartley said patrol members also routinely check up on school bus stops in the neighborhood.
APD patrol officer Jim Conley, who works the Chugiak-Eagle River beat, said he's supportive of the group's efforts.
"I think it's great that we have people that want to get involved in the community," he said.
Although the work is frequently boring, Hartley said he and his fellow patrol members do sometimes run across possible crimes in progress. In that case, they call the police. But that's where their involvement in law enforcement ends.
"If we see anything going on, we don't ever make contact," he said. "We're not the law."
Conley said having the community patrol out and about has helped the department better understand crime trends in the area.
"They help us out immensely," he said.
By MATT TUNSETH
Chugiak-Eagle River Star