Pinellas Park Mayor Mischler Creates Office To Protect Senior Citizens From Fraud
September 27, 2004
To address the problems of scam artists who target senior citizens, Pinellas Park Mayor William F. "Bill" Mischler opened a Seniors vs. Crime Office to assist elderly residents when they feel they have been the victim of fraud. The purpose of the Seniors vs. Crime Office is to provide an agency to direct elderly resident complaints for investigation and resolution of civil and criminal complaints.
Pinellas Park (FL), located in Pinellas County, has a large community of senior residents. With a population of nearly one million residents, twenty-two and one-half percent are over the age of sixty-five. Many of these citizens are victimized by criminals who use slick talk and confusing scams to fleece the residents out of their money. Some of these scams are criminal and others are civil in nature. The complex nature of many of these scams, and the high volume of calls for police service in Pinellas Park, led to many senior victims being passed from agency to agency.
Pinellas Park Police Department has conducted a Citizen Police Academy (CPA) with several academy classes a year. The CPA teaches citizens why the police perform certain functions and allows citizens to provide feedback on how the police department can better serve the community. Interested CPA graduates are invited to join the Volunteers in Policing Program.
The Florida State Attorney General's Office began a program called "Senior Sleuths" in Florida to use volunteers to assist senior residents when they feel they have been a victim of fraud. These volunteers examine the complaints brought forth by seniors and either direct the senior to the appropriate police agency, or contact the offending party on behalf of the senior.
In 2002, the State Attorney General's Office wanted to open "storefront" offices and Pinellas Park's central location was to open Pinellas County's first storefront office for Senior vs. Crime. The idea was initially introduced to the Volunteers in Policing who leaped at the chance to begin this beneficial program.
The police department then went to the city government and asked for a location to open the storefront office. Pinellas Park allowed the police department to use a building directly across from the police station, which was once the city's recreation department. The department secured a community-policing grant from the federal government for $80,000 for computer and office equipment. Once the grant was secured, the department and the State Attorney General's Office trained the volunteers in the handling and investigation of complaints.
The Pinellas Park Office of 'Senior vs. Crime' opened on July 21, 2003. The office is staffed with Volunteers in Policing from the Pinellas Park Police Department.
Volunteers examine the details of the complaint and determine if the matter is civil or criminal. If it is criminal, the matter is forwarded to the appropriate law enforcement agency. If the matter is civil in nature, the volunteer will attempt to come to an amenable solution with the other party. The office operates under the philosophy of "Seniors helping Seniors." This program has not only helped the senior residents, but it has also allowed the city to utilize members of its community as volunteers to make a positive impression on the community.
The Seniors vs. Crime program has definitely shown the community and reaffirmed for the senior residents that Pinellas Park Police Department cares about its senior residents. To date the Pinellas Park Seniors vs. Crime Office has investigated 230 cases, utilized 1,651 volunteer man-hours, and recovered $216,721.
The initial start up cost of the Seniors vs. Crime Office was funded by the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Policing Services (COPS) Grant and the Volunteers in Policing budget for the police department. Donations from local businesses, other law enforcement agencies and the Pinellas Park Police Department Citizen's Police Academy Alumni were also used. The program's continued costs will be budgeted and provided by the City of Pinellas Park.
The Seniors vs. Crime Office uses contacts within the Pinellas Park such as utility billing, zoning and the streets departments to gather information in investigations. Some city employees volunteer their time to assist in the investigation of cases. Members of the community are encouraged to go through volunteer training and assist the office in investigations. The business community assists by advertising the program and giving donations to the office.
The major lesson learned in the program is that Seniors vs. Crime filled a definite need in the community. Many senior residents do not feel comfortable calling law enforcement to report their victimization because they are embarrassed. They feel more comfortable telling one of their 'peers' who can assist them. Because many of the complaints are civil in nature, law enforcement often told the senior resident that the problem was civil and instructed them to contact a lawyer. The Seniors vs. Crime program offers residents assistance with their matter and gives them the attention they deserve. Citizens no longer feel that nobody cares about their problem.
Mayors who are interested in replicating this program need to keep in mind that the man-hours and financing needed to start the program may seem extensive at first, but they are quickly made up in volunteer hours and saved in the volume of calls for police service.
For more information contact Officer Brian Unmisig, Office of Professional Standards, Pinellas Park Police Department, 7700 59 Street North, Pinellas Park, FL 3378. Office: 727-541-0861; Fax: 727-541-0889; E-mail: BUnmisig@Pinellas-Park.com.