WEST HAVEN — As West Haven officials wrestle with the long-term future of policing in the growing city, they’re diving headfirst into a Weber County Sheriff’s Office program that puts volunteers on the streets as eyes and ears.

Leaders are eager about the initiative, the Volunteers in Police Service program, and optimistic it can help fend off crime. Sgt. Terance Lavely, of the Sheriff’s Office, which handles law enforcement for West Haven, seven other Weber County cities and the county’s unincorporated corners, calls the volunteers — a layer on top of the deputies already handling patrol duties — “a force multiplier.”

“To those that think (West Haven) is an easy target for theft — we will be watching out for any and all suspicious activity in the city. We have a police radio and we’re not afraid to use it,” added Rob Vanderwood, a West Haven City Council member and VIPS volunteer.

Even so, as West Haven has grown and expanded, city officials have debated creating their own police department. Home to an estimated 15,239 people, West Haven was the fastest-growing city in Weber County between 2017 and 2018 and the third fastest-growing city in the state, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. The next biggest city in Weber County is South Ogden, with 17,146 residents and a police force of its own, making West Haven the largest Weber County city without its own police department.

Mayor Sharon Bolos is satisfied with the service provided by the Sheriff’s Office, and so far, the financials have kept the talk about forming a police department from gaining ground. Last year, the estimated cost of creating a 12-member police force totaled $2.3 million, more than double the fee the city will have to pay the Sheriff’s Office for coverage for fiscal year 2019-2020, $1.06 million, according to Bolos.

“We’ve talked about that every budget season for the last several years,” said Bolos, who’s going through the process to become a VIPS volunteer. It’ll likely come up in talks this coming spring to craft the fiscal year 2020-2021 budget.

Still, the notion of creating a police department has “scattered” support around the city among some who favor having more control over law enforcement, says Lacy Richards, a VIPS volunteer and former City Council member. And Vanderwood thinks the day looms when the answer won’t be so black and white to the question of whether forming a police department is needed.

“We’re really at that teetering point right now where we really do need to make some decisions,” Vanderwood said. The estimated price for Sheriff’s Office coverage, he noted, will reach $1.4 million for 2020-2021.

Nina Morse, who won election to the City Council last year, had said the city should take a serious look at creating a police force in her campaigning. “I’m still interested in looking at that as we grow. I think we’re big enough, getting big enough,” she said.

‘ANOTHER SET OF EYES’

For now, though, the Sheriff’s Office handles law enforcement, and leaders think VIPS is a great tool to help keep crime and other such activity in check. Vanderwood encourages those in West Haven who are interested in volunteering to contact him at 801-745-5168. The Sheriff’s Office contact phone number for the program is 801-778-6634.

The VIPS program formally launched last year, with volunteers, who are unarmed, now handling patrol duties in West Haven, Huntsville, Marriott-Slaterville and other cities covered by the Sheriff’s Office. It took a big step forward last week in West Haven with the addition of VIPS markings to a truck used by West Haven building inspectors, giving the volunteers in the city a vehicle to use when patrolling.

The Sheriff’s Office has a vehicle VIPS cities may use, but volunteers have to travel to department headquarters in Ogden to get it and coordinate with volunteers in other locales who might want to use it. Having their own vehicle gives the West Haven volunteers more options.

“When I heard about the VIPS program, I thought it was a way I could assist in making a difference in slowing the crime rate by being another set of eyes on the streets,” Vanderwood said. His wife, Lorraine, is also a volunteer and they patrol together.

Volunteers patrol in a VIPS-marked vehicle, watching for suspicious activity and, proponents hope, deterring it from happening in the first place. They also look for things like open garage doors, potential draws to criminals, and check construction sites to guard against theft.

“The more preventative protection you can do, the less crime you’re going to have across the board,” Bolos said. That, she adds, could forestall the day when West Haven has to get its own police department.

Volunteers receive training from the Sheriff’s Office and are instructed not to intervene when they come across a questionable situation. Rather, they’re to radio for help from sheriff’s deputies. Volunteers can also help with things like traffic control during a crash or busy event, freeing deputies to attend to more urgent duties.

Contact reporter Tim Vandenack at tvandenack@standard.net, follow him on Twitter at @timvandenack or like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/timvandenackreporter.

See what people are talking about at The Community Table!