Dressed in a matching blue jerseys and khaki pants, Charleston police recruits Nick Smith and Daniel Penick strolled through the City Market, offering waves and hellos to passers-by along the way.
Some people smiled back. Others offered quizzical stares, not sure what to make of the pair.
Smith and Penick are accustomed to it. In the past several weeks, they've been mistaken for valet parking attendants, time-share salesmen and carriage ride hawkers.
They don't get offended. They are a new sight on the city's historic streets, part of an innovative program that puts recruits to work in the community, giving them a taste of police work while they await formal training.
Police Chief Greg Mullen started the Tourism Oriented Police Services (TOPS) program to better utilize recruits while they endure the four-month wait to enroll in the state Criminal Justice Academy. In the past, recruits busied themselves helping with filing and others administrative tasks. Now, they hit the streets to help residents in need, check on disabled vehicles, meet with merchants, assist with traffic control and generally keep an eye out for trouble.
"It's a good way for them to get to know the city and interact with the community," said Sgt. Dale Wilson, the unit's supervisor. "But it's also good for the police department to have extra eyes and ears on the streets."
The TOPS trainees carry no weapons, just a police radio, and they aren't allowed to make arrests. But the group, currently staffed with 15 recruits, already has proved their worth. Just last week, TOPS officers spotted and directed police to an armed robbery suspect on the loose in the downtown area.
TOPS trainee Jason Cole, 30, helped foil another holdup on Valentine's Day. He and another TOPS officer were patrolling near Charleston Place when
their police radios barked descriptions of two suspects who had robbed a couple in Waterfront Park. Just then,
the two suspects walked by. The officers called in the informa- tion and followed the pair until police swooped in and made the arrests.
"It was the greatest feeling ever," Cole said. "You want to be a police officer and then you get a chance to help someone who was robbed. Just a great feeling."
Mullen said the outcome would have been even better had Cole and his partner been able to make the arrests themselves.
Mullen is pleased with the work of the TOPS unit, but he still would prefer to have his new hires patrolling the city as actual police officers. That's why he's pushing for a regional police academy to reduce the wait time for training. So far, he has received mix reactions and no commitments from state officials.
"They are doing a great job in what they are allowed to do," Mullen said. "But if I had 15 sworn police officers out there, they could be doing a lot more things."
Mullen would get no argument from Smith and Penick. Both men have wanted to be police officers since they were kids. They are itching to get into the academy and earn their badges.
"It's something I've always wanted to do," Smith said.
So they will fill whatever role is needed until their time at the academy arrives. On a recent morning, that meant repeatedly walking a circuitous route through the Market and its surrounding environs.
At Waterfront Park, Penick peered around the raised hood of an idling minivan and waved at the woman behind the wheel. "Do you need some help, ma'am?" he asked.
She shook her head, explaining that the clunking noise in her engine had gone away. "I think it will be all right."
"Well, we just want to make sure you were OK," Smith offered.
The woman smiled. "Thank you. That's very nice of you."
"No problem," he replied. "That's what we're here for."
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or firstname.lastname@example.org.