Still serving, and still protecting
Gilbert Nash almost makes it look too easy.
As he saunters through a security checkpoint at the Nevada County Courthouse, giving a guard a wry smile and a wave of the hand, the 83-year-old retired firefighter slips into the district attorney’s office, closes the door behind him and returns 10 minutes later.
“Let’s roll,” he says, his eyes darting to the waiting blue-and-white patrol car parked outside.
Once inside the cruiser, Nash and his partner, 80-year-old Bill Schafer, drive off to deliver a thick envelope full of confidential documents to the Grass Valley Police Department.
You half-wonder if Schafer, driving the familiar Ford Crown Vics the cops use, has one of those red sirens to slap on top of the roof, a la “Dragnet.”
The job, for these old hands, seems almost fun.
But it is a serious business, both contend as they drive back to the South Auburn Street station.
And while the two octogenarians crack jokes about their roles with the Grass Valley Police Department as volunteers, it’s worth noting that theirs is an important function executed by a cadre of a dozen who spend two four-hour shifts a month delivering records, helping with traffic and crowd control, and checking on homes whose owners are on vacation.
“Their job is to be good observers, good witnesses,” Grass Valley Police Capt. Greg Hart said. “They are another set of eyes and ears for us. We want it to be enjoyable for them, but a challenge as well. It’s an excellent way for them to be in law enforcement without having to go through the academy or a career change, and a way for them to become involved in the community.”
Volunteer patrols are not just limited to the Grass Valley Police Department – the California Highway Patrol and the Nevada County Sheriff’s Office employ volunteers for similar services as well.
Up until a few years ago, Grass Valley’s volunteers were an all-senior corps; nine of 12 members are over the age of 65 today.
They’re led by Joan Nio, a community service officer who oversees training and scheduling for each of the volunteers, who sport two-way radios and dress blues. Their cars are distinctly marked “Volunteer.”
Schafer is a charter member of the volunteer crew, a retired plant manager who dreamed of being a CHP officer as a child. Nash worked for years as a Los Angeles city fire inspector, including the Watts riots in 1965. He’s been a volunteer for five years.
Nash says their job is clear. “We’re public relations folks, a neighborhood watch on wheels. Our most effective role is being seen by the public.”
Both have passed FBI background checks.
On a recent morning, after returning documents to the police department, Schafer behind the wheel, Nash in the rear, they cruise down Forest Glade Circle to make a vacation house check.
“I really enjoy giving back to the community. This certainly isn’t a drag … It’s a change of pace, and rewarding, because people respect you,” the balding Schafer said.
As Schafer steers the cruiser back on East Main Street, people stare and are exceedingly polite and cautious at four-way stops, eliciting a chuckle from Schafer as Nash recounts how the duo worked a murder scene on Bennett Street a few years ago.
“I’ll never forget who showed up with the cold drinks and potato chips for us,” Nash said, pointing to the driver. “That was one helluva cold night.”
Both say despite some occupational hazards, they feel safe.
“We’ve been around a long time,” Nash said. “If we lived in fear about what could happen to us out here, we’d be too scared to do anything.”
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