Malibu’s Volunteers on Patrol (VOP) are gearing up for a busy summer season. As an arm of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the VOP program was developed a few decades ago, but its visibility in Malibu has grown in the past decade since the City Council adopted an ordinance to green light the program.
Malibu resident Mark Russo is the VOP Team Leader for the Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station. Under his leadership, members of the Sheriff’s Department assigned to the Lost Hills station patrol Malibu, a necessity when 300,000 visitors or more will crowd its beaches and main thoroughfare on the Pacific Coast Highway daily.
In some emergencies, the team will be dispatched to assist California Highway Patrol or LASD at incidents in the canyons or neighboring cities.
“To clarify, we are not a city unit,” Russo explained. “We’re a Sheriff’s Department unit that patrols the city.”
The unit may be deployed to help with traffic control when CHP or LASD is handling a major incident just outside Malibu.
“Our expertise is traffic control, parking enforcement and high-visibility patrol,” Russo said. “We proactively do enforcement patrols, looking for suspicious activity and looking for public safety hazards. We provide an augmentation to the Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station.”
In a major traffic incident, VOPs can roll onto the scene and relieve other deputies on duty so they can return to the field and answer calls for service.
“In a long-duration event it’s not great for them to tie up those resources on a static closure when they need a law enforcement presence there,” Russo said. “That’s what we’re good at. It really helps the department because we can pick up a lot of the slack so they can focus on the priority crime calls.”
With four patrol cars, the team can use three at a time: one on the east end of Malibu, one in the Civic Center, and one in Malibu’s west end.
To gear up for the summer crowds, VOPs prepare as a whole with the entire Lost Hills station.
“We’re part of the team,” Russo said.
That includes the Beach Team, which is usually staffed with a lieutenant, a sergeant, and deputies who manage beach crowds. Their headquarters are at Zuma Beach near the big lifeguard tower. They ride the sand on “quads.” You’ll also find the Beach Team in cruisers randomly patrolling “pocket beaches.”
The team’s primary emphasis is managing crime, crowds, and incidents occurring on public beaches in Malibu. Part of this team includes parking control officers who write tickets and tow vehicles if necessary. A busy holiday could see 300 parking tickets written in one day. Illegally parked cars are not just a nuisance, according to authorities, they can be a public safety matter when cars block driveways, obstruct lanes, or block fire hydrants.
A Summer Enforcement Team made up of deputies, reserves and VOPs “will hit all the different hot spots because as we know there’s weekends when 150,000 people are coming to Malibu,” according to Russo.
The team focuses primarily on parking enforcement and responding to traffic collisions. They also patrol high traffic areas such as El Matador Beach, Westward Beach, Cliffside and Birdview Drives, and Escondido Falls, to name a few. This summer, the team will be in full deployment mode from 8 a.m. until 9 p.m. The team is on call 24/7.
Twelve men and three women make up the team. They are all completely unpaid volunteers who give their time to their community. After vetting, VOPs complete six months of patrol training. The team is always recruiting for uniformed patrol members, and it can lead to other opportunities; in fact, three former members just left to become police officers for other departments in Southern California.
“It speaks to the caliber of our people, and the nature of our training,” Russo said of those hirings. “We put quite a bit of emphasis into training.”
For Russo, it’s all about serving the community.
“Civic-minded community members look for ways to give back to their community. I always look for what I can do to make my community safer. I was intrigued by what the Sheriff’s Department had to offer,” he said. “I think the reason we all do it is because we have a sense that we go out there and make a difference. We patrol. We see things out there and we’re so familiar with this city that we are really good at being able to identify public safety issues and provide appropriate resources.
“As a community member you try to make your community a better, safer place to live. That’s what draws all of us on the team. Getting involved in your community is incredibly rewarding.”
Those interested in joining VOP can email Malibuvop@gmail.com