Dave Malara pulls his black-and-white Crown Victoria out of the Charleston Police Department's Team 4 sub-station on Bee's Ferry Road and into the thick of afternoon rush-hour traffic.
The cruiser looks like the hundreds of others patrolling the city, but this one has no blue lights on the roof, only amber ones. And the familiar emblem on the door has "Community Services" emblazoned in big amber letters where the word "Police" normally would be.
Malara is one of about a half-dozen men and women who volunteer as Community Services officers. Whenever he has time to spare, he patrols the city, looking for ways he can help the public, and in so doing, help the police department.
On this day, Stan Halstead, the department's assistant coordinator for volunteer services and supervisor of the Community Services Officers, is riding shotgun with Malara.
They're driving along Paul Cantrell Boulevard when Malara spots a fender-bender. A car and a sport utility vehicle are on the shoulder of the road, with both drivers standing outside looking at their vehicles.
Halstead grabs the radio and calls the collision in to the dispatcher. Malara turns left onto Tobias Gadson Boulevard and waits for traffic to clear so he can make a U-turn to get back to the intersection.
Community Services officers can't flip on blue lights and sirens and bring traffic to a halt in an intersection. They need to follow all traffic laws. They are not sworn police officers and don't wear uniforms. They have no power to arrest or detain anyone or to enforce the law. They're empowered only to serve.
Malara pulls behind the two vehicles and turns on his overhead amber lights. He and Halstead get out of the cruiser and approach the drivers, making sure no one is injured. Within a few minutes, a regular patrol officer arrives to take the collision report. He thanks Malara and Halstead and sends them on their way.
Malara, 44, is one of the most active Community Services officers, Halstead says.
CSOs, as the Community Services officers are called, are not to be confused with the department's Community Service officers. The "S" on the end of "Services" makes all the difference in the world, Halstead said. Community Service Officers are paid employees who perform various non-law-enforcement functions around the department. Community Services Officers are totally volunteer. They even buy their own shirts and patches.
Malara describes himself as a successful small-business owner who thinks he needs to give something back to the community. "I've read a lot of self-improvement books," Malara says. "They all say if you give back to the community you'll get it back three times over."
While driving along Sam Rittenberg Boulevard, they hear the dispatcher call for any car with a lockout tool to assist a motorist locked out of his car in the parking lot of T.J. Maxx. Halstead picks up the radio and tells the dispatcher they'll take the call.
Malara pulls into Westwood Plaza Shopping Center and scans the parking lot for a maroon Cadillac. A man and woman are walking toward the car and they wave him over. Malara tries, in vain, to pop open the door using a "Slim Jim" lockout tool, but the power locks on the 1993 Cadillac won't budge. The motorist says he'll call a locksmith. Malara and Halstead get back in the cruiser and back on the road.
Malara was a volunteer EMT and firefighter in his native upstate New York. He moved to the Charleston area almost three years ago and is also a volunteer EMT with Charleston County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Squad. He's not married and has no children, so he has a lot of time to donate, he says.
Community Services officers assist sworn law enforcement officers by providing traffic control or assisting stranded motorists, Halstead says. "We hope to get a pickup truck so we can carry a can of gasoline and other items that we can't carry in a cruiser," Halstead says. CSOs also direct traffic at special events such as the Cooper River Bridge Run or the recent Blue Angels air show. Often, they'll be dispatched to the scene of a collision to wait for a tow truck, thereby freeing up a sworn officer to get back into service more quickly.
There are about seven CSOs, including Halstead. They range in age from 18 to 70. A few volunteers are students taking criminal justice courses at area colleges, but most are residents who want to give something back to the community, Halstead says.
Requirements for Community Services officers include being 18 or older, in good physical shape, with a clear driving record and no criminal background, Halstead says. Training consists of sessions with the department's traffic officers, who teach volunteers how to handle collisions and traffic flow, and sessions with Malara, who supervises the field training of volunteers. All CSOs also are CPR-certified, Halstead says.
Editor's note: Earlier versions of this story gave an incorrect first name for Stan Halstead. The Post and Courier regrets the error.