Seniors are often a forgotten population in police work, yet they are at risk from crime, declining living conditions, and isolation. Many do not know where to turn for help. In Largo, located on the west coast of Florida, the police department is working to change this through the creation of a Senior Services Officer position.
In general, police work is reactive: something happens and police respond. There is very little continuing contact that allows them to address long-term problems, and many of the seniors’ problems are long-term. Some become confused and are unable to care for themselves. Others have no family—or family who live thousands of miles away—so they live, and often die, in virtual isolation.
In addition, seniors are repeatedly the trusting victims of telemarketing scams in which they purchase unneeded merchandise and services, respond to requests for donations, answer construction scams in which they are receive faulty roof repair, or purchase unnecessary water treatment equipment.
Census figures indicate that 36% of Largo’s 70,000 residents are over the age of 59. The Largo police department, deciding it needed to be proactive in dealing with this segment of the city’s population, developed the Senior Services Officer position.
One incident in particular emphasized a need for senior citizen-based police services. A woman, in her advanced years, had been dead in her mobile home for seven days when she was found. Even though police regularly do welfare checks, it was sad that nobody had been there for her.
Training and Duties
Largo currently has one full time Senior Services Officer (SSO), Rayshall Poinsette, who works strictly with seniors. She received special training at the area Regional Community Policing Institute (RCPI) under a grant funded by the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) office through the US Department of Justice. Officer Poinsette attended a specialized weeklong class conducted by the State’s Attorney General’s Office.
When a call comes into the department saying that an elderly citizen needs help, the SSO responds. Generally these calls come from worried neighbors or family members. Because Officer Poinsette is able to respond right away, other officers who may not have the specialized training to deal with seniors are not taken away from their duties. If she was not there, the Largo PD feels that people might get into the system but fall through the cracks. Also, since only one officer is involved with these cases, there is no duplication of effort.
Three concerns take up most of a SSO’s time. The most important is isolation of the seniors. Often their families don’t know anything is wrong or if the senior is having difficulties until the SSO contacts them.
Secondly, the SSO is active in assessing the deficiencies in the senior’s medical and social needs, and referring them to the proper agency for help. The officer carries a multi-page list of resources with her on each call.
On the printout are socially-orientated services that can help, such as food pantries and soup kitchens; mental health, marriage, or family counselors; places to get furniture or clothing; and a list of agencies to contact for financial help in paying utility bills, dealing with substance abuse, or finding housing. This specialized officer acts as a liaison to other social services programs in the county to be sure the senior gets the proper care.
In a recent case, Largo’s SSO was able to get housing for an 88-year-old man who had been living in his van. Although many individuals living on the streets do not want to move to a facility, this charming and personable man was willing to go. The officer took him to a fast food restaurant for his birthday, buying his birthday lunch with her own money; there he was persuaded that moving to a shelter would be best for him.
The third major concern is dealing with victims of crimes. When a neighbor suspected a senior had been the victim of a scam to repair her mobile home’s roof for $7,000, the officer was able to void the labor contract and begin a criminal investigation.
The SSO is also actively involved in preventing crime from happening. She speaks to groups of seniors at senior centers or mobile home parks about crime prevention, consumer fraud, personal safety, neighborhood watch programs, dependent assistance, and the availability of adult caregiver professionals. She reminds them to watch out for their neighbors, and if they don’t see someone for days, to call the police so she can check on the person’s welfare. Information is also available for distribution about how to get on the do not call list, and how to report telemarketing scams.
These meetings bring other issues to light. For instance, seniors in a 55-and-over mobile home park may not realize that a neighbor’s relative who is living in the park and running a marijuana operation can be dangerous to both the senior in the house as well as his or her neighbors. Not only might there be repercussions from other drug dealers, but there could also be electrical and fire hazards because of the grow lights, chemical hazards from the nutrients used to grow the plants, and increased likelihood of break-ins in the neighborhood.
These group presentations have been well received, as shown by the many grateful thank you notes sent to the department.
In addition, if there is a crime in a senior community, the SSO will follow-up with the community, stopping potential rumors by keeping them informed and letting them know what has actually happened and what to do to prevent it from happening again.
On a short-term basis, the SSO can pick up medications for seniors if they do not have the transportation to do so. The Department of Children and Families also works in partnership with Largo’s SSO when they assess people in need of special social services attention.
In the very worse case scenarios, where a senior citizen is intoxicated and violent, the SSO has the tough decision of whether to handcuff or not, as seniors’ bones are brittle and there is a fear of injuring them. In every instance, handling is done as gently as possible.
Creating a Senior Services Program
Largo Police Chief Lester Aradi suggests that police departments “turn the glasses around” and look at community policing from a different perspective. Traditionally, community policing strategy has involved such concepts as neighborhood watch, neighborhood resource centers, and business and academic community policing models. He suggests that instead of thinking of the “community” as being made up of geographic areas and neighborhoods, agencies look at the global “community” of people within the jurisdiction—the seniors, children, etc. The government’s front line for helping people lies with the police who can identify people in need.
Because the SSO is experienced in and trained to deal with seniors, the resistance that other officers may have to the program can be overcome. They will realize that they are not loosing a street officer to another feel good endeavor, but are saving themselves time and, often, frustration in dealing with seniors who need specialized help. The SSO also works closely with patrol and follows up with the seniors’ families.
Choosing a SSO involves careful screening of applicants. The officer must have, first and foremost, compassion. The officer must be a caring individual with a devotion to the department’s and program’s mission. The potential-SSO must also have the ability to empathize with elderly citizens and have a passion for dealing with seniors. Often, this will be an older officer who has had experience in dealing with elderly parents or relatives.
It takes a special person to be able to engage a 91-year-old man in conversation or comfort a frightened 86-year-old woman. Being a SSO almost has to be a calling. Other suggestions for selecting an SSO are that the selected applicant be flexible, patient, and willing to listen: as part of the job, the SSO may sit for an hour listening to what the senior has to say.
Typically, officers enjoy specialized assignments and look upon being a SSO as both nontraditional policing and a career builder.
Among the resources that are needed for the job are two types of vehicles: a cruiser for most of the visits, and a special, unmarked vehicle for others. The unmarked vehicle might be used, for example, to transport someone who needs to be accompanied to court for a traffic citation. Seniors don’t necessarily want to be seen in the back of a police car when no crime has been committed. Largo often uses its property van for this purpose.
The multi-page list of community resources used by Officer Poinsette originally came from the police department’s victim advocate’s office. Later, other resources were added to it as needed. The SSO also received helpful tips from the victim’s advocate, who accompanied her on many of her first cases, and the department’s domestic violence specialist.
Largo’s Senior Services program is publicized through brochure handouts, referrals, and the presentations that are made to groups.
The Largo Police Department has several plans for the future. One involving seniors is to activate a Reverse 911 program, for which the department already technology in place. With this program, seniors who have no one to check on them are automatically called each day. If they do not answer the telephone, an officer is sent out to investigate.
This activation will be implemented in conjunction with the creation of a community policing unit consisting of the SSO, six other full time officers, and a part time mental health liaison. The six new full time officers forming the unit will be selected from those currently serving on the force, based on a letter of intent, a list of accomplishments, and interviews. They will then receive special training. Recruits from the academy will fill the vacated positions. Such officers will also be required to do traditional policing. Chief Aradi does not foresee any problems finding officers to fill the specialized assignments in the community policing unit.
A Community Policing COPS Grant will fund the new unit. Because this grant must also include some homeland security duties, the officers should receive first response training in which they will identify areas at risk and develop strategies to mitigate those risks.
When the senior population has contact with a sympathetic law enforcement agency, they will know who to call in an emergency. Largo’s SSO puts a face and a name to someone who can help seniors. It is a comfort to the seniors, as well as to their families, to know that there is someone at the police department who cares. But the most important and most satisfying part of the job, according to Officer Poinsette, is that through her work, the vulnerable elderly are able to keep their dignity.
Jim Weiss is a retired lieutenant from the Brook Park, OH, Police Department and a frequent contributor to LAW and ORDER.
Mickey Davis is a Florida-based journalist.