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Good Neighbor Program: A Law Enforcement Program Worth Replicating

By Sgt. Bernadette Smith, Douglas County Sheriff’s Office

April 15, 2021

The role of law enforcement is not just about kicking down doors and arresting criminals.  It is also about protecting one of our most vulnerable populations.  Seniors have greatly contributed to society, worked full careers, raised families, assisted with grandchildren, helped their aging parents; and are now slowing down.  They deserve our attention, respect and the protection of our law enforcement. This was the impetus for the Douglas County Sherriff’s office designing the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office (DCSO) Good Neighbor Program. The program began with one volunteer and one client in January 2017, today, there are 45 volunteers and we have processed about 183 clients. A background checked volunteer is assigned to a senior to call and/or visit.   Friendship is the basic ingredient that DCSO offers through its volunteers. 

Imagine if you will some of the recent scenarios that we have encountered and helped our older Americans in our community navigate:

  • John, an honorable World War II veteran, a lottery winner in the 1990’s, generous with all of his adult children, was left alone night after night. He was a victim of financial exploitation by his own daughter, spending $258k dollars in six months to support her gambling habit.  It is a wretched way to show your 91-year-old non-ambulatory widowed father your appreciation for paying for food and housing in years past. The crimes were discovered, a criminal report generated, prosecution completed and she is serving time in a Nevada prison.
  • A retired law enforcement secretary, who was on hospice only eating graham crackers for the last three days because her adult daughter was too busy to shop for groceries for her mother. Through a criminal investigation it was discovered that she had been helping herself to her mother’s credit cards for over $5k.  The hospice patient was suffering without air conditioning in her home due to an unresponsive landlord. The daughter was contacted for a recorded interview, and she immediately paid restitution.  A friendly message on the landlord’s cell phone generated a new heating/air conditioning system within a few weeks. 
  • A lucid and coherent elderly female using a walker had been neglected and financially exploited by her adult son who lived with her for years. When he approached law enforcement for assistance on how to get a court order to force her into a convalescent home and take over her home and finances, it had the opposite effect that he desired.  A peace officer assisted the senior with obtaining a protection order and he was immediately removed from the residence after it was discovered that he pushed his mother’s walker in an aggressive manner, almost causing her to fall. 
  • An elderly male was a frequent user of emergency services, he had suffered a fall inside his home and called paramedics; he was found outside his residence intoxicated and returned home.  He was located in his neighborhood having trouble breathing due to not having his required oxygen with him, and in the final instance, his garage was on fire due to hoarding issues.  Follow up was conducted and it was determined that he could not properly care for himself and he was losing his cognitive abilities.  He was taken to a mental health facility, evaluated, went under public guardianship, and placed into a convalescent home. 

By design, this community outreach program connects the sheriff’s office with the older Americans in our community.  A comprehensive home visit is conducted by a peace officer, and emergency information is procured, a safety check of the residence is completed along with admonitions about current scams. 

The volunteers are trained in the signs and symptoms of elder abuse, neglect and exploitation.  They are educated in suicide prevention, and the services provided by social services.  They are trained how to interact with seniors who may be showing signs of dementia. They form a bond with their senior and mostly everything goes well, offering friendship.   Sometimes as time progresses the volunteers recognize something is not right and ask a peace officer to step in. 

As the peace officer supervising the volunteers and interacting with the seniors, it is enlightening when a senior knows that they have a connection to law enforcement and can call anytime.  One female started crying when I told her she can call me anytime to talk about her concerns about her family pressuring her. In July 2020, DCSO Good Neighbor Program was awarded a 55k grant from the United States Department of Justice for innovative practices in community policing.  It is a model that can be replicated in every community. 

Our population has a large retirement community, and I am grateful that my employer Sheriff Dan Coverley believes as I do, that protecting our older Americans is important, and has given me the ability to grow this program.

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