The Howard Beach Civilian Observation Patrol is back on the beat.
Though the patrol’s leader, Joe Thompson, never stopped posting to the group’s Facebook page and responding to various quality-of-life issues, the group resumed its car patrols in early August.
Thompson said that he has resumed his contact with the 106th Precinct, regular neighborhood patrols and the recruitment of new members. He hopes to get overnight patrols going in the near future.
Thompson, who has been in various neighborhood patrols since he was 16 years old, began HBCOP in 2015, but the group has encountered obstacles, and taken a number of different breaks during its history.
As the number of burglaries has increased citywide from the previous years for several months, the neighborhood has taken notice. Civics and neighborhood social media groups have vehemently called for a community police patrol in Howard Beach.
Thompson said that the group mainly provides a crime deterrent and quality-of-life support.
“We don’t carry weapons. We have a flashlight, we have papers, we have our cell phone to call things in, but we are just the eyes and the ears,” Thompson said. “We like working on quality-of-life issues and smaller things.”
In August Thompson sat down with 106th Precinct Capt. John Costello, the commanding officer, to talk about starting up the patrol in a full capacity, an important step given that the civilian patrol had stumbled years ago after it did not receive support from the precinct.
Thompson also felt that he needed to clear up his past in speaking with Costello. Back in 2015, the Forum ran a story revealing that in 2001 Thompson pleaded guilty to enterprise corruption for promoting prostitution.
Thompson told the Chronicle that he had funded a family member’s illegitimate escort service, but served no jail time for doing so and had learned his lesson.
“It truly ruined my life. It’s been 19 years since then, and I haven’t gotten so much as a parking ticket,” said Thompson, who said he otherwise might have had a life in law enforcement.
During the meeting, Costello encouraged him to make a fresh start with the precinct’s blessing as long as HBCOP follows the guidelines around unofficial neighborhood patrols.
Costello told him that the precinct would help provide a warrant check and arrest history for any new members as part of a preapplication process, before Thompson moves forward and pays for a paid background check from Intellicorp.
“They’re basically just trying to help out the community, which is great,” Costello told the Chronicle. “I told [Thompson] just don’t become any type of vigilante because that’s how you get yourself in trouble. I think they’ll work out fine.”
According to NYPD guidelines, the group can only use amber lights on its patrol, instead of any red or blue lights. Costello added that it’s important from Thompson to vet his members himself because the group would ultimately bare all legal liability for them.
“You are your own entity,” Costello said.
That being said, members of a nonprofit group like HBCOP have more protections than individuals who respond to neighborhood incidents on their own. President Clinton signed the Volunteer Protection Act of 1997, which limits the liability of individual volunteers for 501 (c)(3), a status that HBCOP has maintained over the years.
Thompson believes that’s one reason why it’s important for residents to participate in neighborhood patrols rather than go out on their own. In addition to giving his members training, Thompson said that he emphasizes their duties are limited to observation.
“There’s a lot of individuals that think it’s just ‘Let me jump in my car and drive around.’ And if you see something happen what are you going to do? Jump in, grab them and be the hero?” Thompson said.
Since restarting, the patrol is up to about 20 members. In addition to making the rounds in cars that they decal with HBCOP signage, the group has served in a community service capacity by restoring several ghost bike memorials in the neighborhood, a personal act for Thompson after he almost lost his life to a car as a kid.
What Thompson sees on patrol, he said, is mostly traffic infractions. He recently found a truck that had been blasting loud music into the night from an oversized speaker system. He also hopes to deter the trend of petty larceny from people’s unlocked cars that residents have recently been posting online about.