Greenbelt PD: Volunteers Protect and Serve on the Greenbelt 

Volunteer force keeps its eyes on Boise's popular pathways

Neither rain nor snow nor blazing-hot temperatures will keep Ruth Neal from her appointed Boise River Greenbelt Patrol route.

Patrick Sweeney

Neither rain nor snow nor blazing-hot temperatures will keep Ruth Neal from her appointed Boise River Greenbelt Patrol route.

Nearly 20 years ago, Ruth Neal was walking alone along the Greenbelt when she stumbled upon a sight she hadn't expected to see that morning: a fully nude man sunning himself next to the river.

"I saw this guy over there exposing himself, and I told my daughter about it, and she said she had seen him, too," Neal said. "All we did was laugh about it, but you know, really and truly, we should have done more."

As a sometimes solitary walker on the paths that grace the riverside, Neal realized naked men on the Greenbelt could pose a danger to herself and others.

"I thought later, that's a bad sign, he is up to no good," she said.

At 79, Neal still spends plenty of time on the Greenbelt to stay active, but her daily walks aren't just about exercising and enjoying the outdoors. Neal is the eyes and ears of the Boise Police Department as a Greenbelt Safety Patrol volunteer.

Clad in a long-sleeve shirt, white visor, black ear covers and large dark sunglasses to protect from sunburn, Neal walks stretches of the Greenbelt early every morning, seven days a week, keeping an eye out for illegal activity.

"I sort of stand out here because it isn't everyone who wears those black earbags," Neal joked as she walked past a seemingly homeless man napping on a picnic bench in Ann Morrison Park.

It was 8 a.m., and Neal had just begun her daily, two-hour trek along the paths that line the Boise River. The early morning sun filtered through the trees as bicyclists and pedestrians passed Neal, who waved and said hello. After walking for a bit, she explained that her goal out on the trail is to notify the police about people who are causing serious trouble.

"See that guy was smoking a cigarette," Neal whispered as a man puffing on a Camel sauntered the opposite way on the trail, openly violating the Greenbelt's no-smoking ordinance. "I don't say anything unless someone is really breaking the rules; I am usually by myself, so if I have to, I just call up an officer."

Started in 1988 when two bicycle officers were assigned to patrol stretches along the river, the Greenbelt Safety Patrol grew to a fully functioning volunteer organization that police say is making the Greenbelt experience safer.

In 2012, Boise State University's College of Social Sciences conducted a survey of roughly 25 percent to 40 percent of Greenbelt users. More than half--55 percent--reported using the Greenbelt daily to exercise, commute or simply enjoy the scenery.

Though Neal may appear frail, she was still required to enter a resume and go through the same screening process everyone who enlists in the program is subjected to.

"Once they submit an application, then I do a criminal background check and I meet with them for an interview," said Michelle Hilton, BPD community relations coordinator, who oversees the program.

Applicants are asked to provide fingerprints and take psychological exams before being considered a candidate for trail patrol. Those with long rap sheets that include felonies and serious misdemeanors are rejected outright.

"If all of that information checks out, then they qualify for a polygraph," Hilton said. "We hold our volunteers to the same standards as our police officers. If they are going to work here, they need to pass everything the police officers do."

Questions regarding mood and psychological behavior that were initially asked during the interviewing process are posed to applicants during the polygraph screening to ensure individuals aren't fibbing.

"The uniformed people, once they have gone through the screening and have been accepted, we assign them to a shift between 10 a.m.-3 p.m. and from 3-5 p.m.," said BPD Park Ranger Jon Corlett.

Unlike Neal, who is one of about five volunteers who wear street clothes while patrolling, the roughly 30 uniformed volunteers supervised by Corlett wear white polo shirts bearing the BPD name and logo.

Corlett took over operations of the uniformed volunteer task force six years ago after a 36-year career appraising hotels across the Northwest.

"I started volunteering and the fella that was my boss ended up quitting and going to work for one of the federal government's security agencies," he said.

Corlett and other volunteers meet and obtain bikes or snag one of the three golf carts at the volunteer shack near the post office on 13th Street. The shack, once a bike and raft rental store, is now owned by Boise Parks and Recreation and used as the headquarters of uniformed volunteers.

"We don't prevent crime; if we see crime, we notify the regular police officers," Corlett said as he relaxed in front of a whirling fan. "I would like to think we are a deterrent to crime just by our presence out there."

Three golf carts stored in the volunteer shack are used to cover long stretches of Greenbelt paths, but they are also designated to haul dog collars and leashes that are handed out free of charge to owners who are violating leash laws. Bike repair supplies and tools are also kept handy to assist the large number of bicyclists who frequent the trails.

"We help them repair the bikes as much as we can; as much as we have skills to do," Corlett laughed. "And pumping up tires; everyday we get a lot of that."

Despite a daily presence on the Greenbelt, volunteers have yet to experience a violent encounter or injury as a result of reporting illegal activity. Nudity does seem to leave lasting impressions on volunteers, though.

"Summer before last, one of our volunteers was in an area with a lot of shrubbery down on the other side of Veteran's Park. So he took this one trail down to see what was going on and he comes on a pile of women's clothes. It scared him; he thought it might be a suicide," Corlett recounted. "A middle-aged woman comes out of the river stark naked, comes right up to him and says, 'This isn't illegal is it?'"

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