Finger printing isn’t finger painting. It takes a practiced and steady hand not to make a big smudge, and usually not the one with ink on it. For countless South Whidbey residents, that help has been Ham McKelvey.
She’s a volunteer with the Sheriff’s Citizen Patrol. For nearly a decade, McKelvey has spent one day a week at the Island County Sheriff’s Office’s South Precinct in Freeland. She greets walk-ins, helps deputies keep up with mountains of paperwork, assists with other office-related chores, and of course is on regular fingerprinting duty.
“I love it,” she said. “I love working with the public and knowing I can help them.”
McKelvey is one of about 20 volunteers who assist the South Precinct either as office help or as community patrollers; the entire citizen patrol program has about 80 members. Most work out of Coupeville, North Whidbey and on Camano Island.
The program was started in 1995 and, according to Sgt. Darren Crownover, was an offshoot of a past sheriff’s push for community policing. There’s no hard data to quantify the program’s impact on crime prevention, but Crownover believes volunteers play an important role.
Perhaps most importantly, they shoulder time- consuming duties which free up officers in a small department to spend more time hitting the streets. Patrollers, for example, perform tasks such as vacation checks — swinging by homes where the owners are away on holiday. It’s a service the sheriff’s office provides, but one that’s difficult to manage due to staffing constraints.
Citizen patrollers also increase a law enforcement presence on the South End; they visit public parks and restrooms, boat ramps, neighborhoods, and assist with occasional traffic duties, such as at Freeland’s Celebrate America event on July 3.
Volunteers, most of whom are retirees, say the work is gratifying and a chance to give back.
“You feel like you’re doing something worthwhile and it’s nice knowing you are doing something for the community that interests you at the same time,” said Bobbi Cantwell, a Freeland resident who’s volunteered for the past two and a half years.
She’s had past experience working for a sheriff’s office in California.
Crownover said some who volunteer with the citizen patrol have backgrounds in law enforcement; one on Camano is a former homicide detective. It’s not a requirement, however, and volunteers range from former businessmen and merchants to husband and wife teams, he said.
Along with providing a valuable service to the sheriff’s office, volunteers often develop lasting and meaningful friendships with deputies.
“A lot of the volunteers just become part of the family,” Crownover said.
Take McKelvey. She and officers enjoyed a fun-back and-forth during an interview with The Record last week, with McKelvey scoring points sharing secrets about certain cops’ excessive cookie consumption and officers giving her grief about discovering DNA — she retired from a career in bio-chemical genetics at the University of Colorado’s Health Sciences Center.
“She likes putting up with us,” Crownover joked.
“No, I don’t,” said McKelvey with a knowing grin.
She later said that while she “hates to admit it,” working with police has been both fun and educational. She’s gotten to know deputies as people, not just cops, and learned a few tricks of the law enforcement trade as well, such as how to defuse a tense situation. And her cookie-baking skills, well they’ve never been better.
The Island County Sheriff’s Office is looking for additional volunteers. Applicants must participate in an interview and pass a background investigation. Applications are available at the South Precinct, located at 5521 E. Harbor Road in Freeland.