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Civilian patrol keeps eye on 104th Precinct

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It was like a chess game, and Frank Kotnik called every move. From his perch inside his dark Chevy Caprice Friday night, Kotnik barked orders into a hand-held radio to direct an army of more than 20 cars in a complicated traffic control operation.

“Hey, Mr. Policeman,” a little girl shouted as she ran past the car.

Kotnik is not a policeman, nor are the 150 other members of the Glendale Civilian Observation Patrol who regularly patrol the neighborhood’s streets.

But as president of GCOP, Kotnik helps fill a void in the 104th Precinct, where the police officers are spread thin across a large, understaffed area that desperately needs more help.

“You can’t complain about crime,” Kotnik said as he stood outside the 104th Precinct station house, where he accepted a donation of 15 two-way radios last week from U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-Forest Hills). “You’ve got to do something about it.”

On Friday night, GCOP supplied dozens of volunteers to clear the roadway for Ridgewood and Glendale’s annual Good Friday Procession, in which Bishop Thomas Daily of the Brooklyn-Queens Archdiocese participated.

Each drove a car with a magnetized GCOP sign stuck to the door, blocking off each cross street as the crowd of hundreds passed through.

GCOP volunteers range in age and occupation, but they are all residents of the 104th Precinct, which covers Glendale, Ridgewood, Maspeth and Middle Village, and share a common vision of preserving the quality of life in the area.

“I used to take walks around the neighborhood to see if anything was happening,” said Camille Venezia, a volunteer who lives off Myrtle Avenue. Then he found out about GCOP and began doing the same thing in a team.

The GCOP patrols are typically unobtrusive. The volunteers drive around in unmarked cars, keeping an eye out and calling the police if they observe any activities that warrant professional assistance.

But sometimes they cannot help but get noticed.

At the end of Friday’s procession, more than 20 cars with flashing lights on their roofs pulled in rapid succession into the parking lot at Arenson Office Furnishings on Otto Road in Ridgewood, where the volunteers were meeting to return equipment.

But by coincidence their headlights cast their beams straight onto three boys hanging out by the warehouse’s metal doors who immediately jumped down and lifted their hands up in professions of innocence.

One of the volunteers soon lifted from the ground a black glove with spray paint on its fingers, which had long since dried. No fresh tags were visible on the walls. The most vocal of the three youths piped in to tell them whom he thought the glove belonged to, but he didn’t even know his name — only his tag.

They had not done anything wrong, so the volunteers told them to return home after issuing a mild reproach to behave. At least one of the three had already been caught doing graffiti before.

“You got the time?” one kid asked before they disappeared into the night.

“Past your bedtime,” Kotnik shouted after them.

GCOP is particularly effective at busting graffiti vandals, claiming responsibility for more than 100 graffiti arrests over the past year.

“I hate graffiti. I want it to stop,” Kotnik said. “A lot of these children and young adults, their lives are so empty and meaningless that the biggest they get is when someone sees their tag on a wall. And that’s a pretty sad example of what will make people excited.”

The recognition of a need for GCOP’s services has been renewed in the wake of Sept. 11 and President Bush’s call for civilians to participate in law enforcement efforts. Meanwhile, police supervisors say GCOP’s watch is vital in light of diminished manpower in the 104th Precinct, which is down 17 percent in staffing levels from last year.

“If we’re not going to get any police officers, we’re going to have to work with the Police Department as volunteers,” Kotnik said.

GCOP was founded in the spring of 1976, when like today the financial crisis left the ranks of the Police Department thin and the Bicentennial celebration was expected to draw many officers out of the precinct into patrols in Manhattan.

“It wasn’t really appreciated by the Police Department at the time,” said Vincent Arcuri, one of the founding members of the group. “The rank-and-file didn’t think that they needed people on the streets helping them.”

But the precinct now embraces GCOP.

“They’re our eyes and ears,” said Capt. Michael Merritt, the second in command at the 104th Precinct. “We find them to be exceptionally helpful.”

The results, members say, are palpable.

“The neighborhood cleaned up a lot because of us,” said Michael Wilhelm of Glendale, the patrol coordinator. “Kids keep on getting caught. They know that we’re out there.”

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

Posted 7:03 pm, October 10, 2011
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