By Dan Nienaber
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — If you’re driving down Glenwood Avenue and happen to see your retired neighbor behind the wheel of a passing squad car, there’s no need to call 911 to report old Pete has finally popped his cork.
There’s a good chance he’ll be doing his civic duty while checking a childhood wish off his bucket list, although without the excitement of a possible high-speed chase.
“It’s a perfect opportunity if you’ve ever wanted to drive a squad car,” said Trudy Kunkel, Mankato Department of Public Safety deputy director. “But you can’t go lights and sirens.”
Kunkel recently put out the word to some of Mankato’s neighborhood associations that the department is looking for a few good drivers. Volunteers are needed from about 7:30-10:30 a.m. weekdays to move squad cars. They will be driving the vehicles to the city garage for maintenance and repairs, to a business that works on lights and sirens, and to a local car wash.
The need is greater than it has been for awhile because the department is in the process of switching to its new fleet of Ford Interceptors, Kunkel said. The cars need to be brought to different places to have police equipment installed. The department also just left its temporary location, at the intersection of Hoffman Road and Victory Drive, that happened to be next door to the city’s vehicle maintenance facility.
“A lot of times it’s our community service officers who are doing that or our patrol officers who are doing that in the morning,” Kunkel said. “That’s the time we’d like them out patrolling or in the school zones.”
Director of Public Safety Todd Miller said recruiting volunteer drivers is one of many ways the department is working to get residents involved in community policing. One example: Watch groups are being formed to be the “eyes and ears” for police and firefighters in neighborhoods and parks.
Kunkel said she’s also working on a program where the most trusted volunteers will be used to do house checks requested by owners on vacation. Those volunteers also will be patrolling larger areas in vehicles provided the city, often during busy times.
“You build the partnerships and you build the trust,” she said. “We really need the neighborhoods to get involved.”
Mike Gillispie, an active member of the Highland Park Neighborhood Association, said he’s intrigued by the opportunity to drive a police car. A bonus will be getting some photographs to show to his kids. A down side is drivers will be working early shifts.
“If I can fit it into my schedule, I might do it,” he said. “But 7:30 in the morning is getting kind of early in the winter.”
Gillispie, who is semi-retired, also wondered if some time behind the wheel would create an itch that would have to be scratched.
“If I saw someone run a stop sign, I’d have to make a citizens arrest,” he said. “I’d just be doing my duty, right?”
He was joking. Kunkel wasn’t kidding when she said a background check and some basic training will be required. As long as volunteers avoid playing with the computers and radios — and fight the urge to put the super-charged engines to the test — driving a squad car is a lot like driving any other car, Kunkel said.
“You can sit in it and see all the neat stuff in it, but you can’t tear around town.”