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Senior citizens police advocates.

As the population ages, more law enforcement agencies are focusing on senior citizens. Many police departments have formed units devoted specifically to crimes against the elderly. The East Providence, Rhode Island, Police Department is no exception. When a 1991 local census revealed more citizens over age 65 than under age 18, in combination with an increase in service calls involving the elderly, the department realized something had to be done. In response, it created the Senior Citizens Police Advocate Program, a proactive, holistic approach to crime prevention. The program assists senior citizens not only by prioritizing their concerns but also by enlisting the services of various social service organizations in the community.


In the past, the department had handled cases involving seniors in much the same way as it did any other case. However, it decided to change this approach after studying successful senior citizen units, such as the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Police Department's "Gray Squad." East Providence's new method changed the way the department deals with two different types of service calls: Those involving an elderly perpetrator and those with an elderly victim.

Senior Suspects

While senior citizens are often seen as victims, they can be the perpetrators of crimes as well. However, crimes committed by senior citizens may be the result of abnormal aging rather than criminal intent.

For example, they may forget to pay for an item in a store and be charged with shoplifting. Or, they may become disoriented and commit a motor vehicle violation, such as driving the wrong way on a one-way street.

Thus, when officers respond to incidents, they try to determine if the crimes could be attributed to the effects of the aging process. If so, they refer the individuals to the senior citizens police advocate, who refers them to a social service agency that can help them. These agencies include the Rhode Island Department of Elderly Affairs and the local mental health facility.

Senior Victims

Prior to instituting the advocate program, the department also experienced an increase in calls for service from elderly homeowners. These calls ranged from reporting possible burglaries and hearing strange noises to complaining of fear and loneliness. Sometimes, local residents would call asking the police to check on the welfare of an elderly neighbor.

Traditionally, the department handled these calls by proceeding to the scene, talking to the elderly resident, and taking a report. Oftentimes, no crime had occurred, and the responding officer never followed up--there was no need--or so the department thought. As the number of calls mounted, however, it became clear that the department's approach was inadequate.

As a result, officers responding to service calls from elderly citizens now assess the situation and, when necessary, refer residents to a senior citizens police advocate. In turn, the advocate notifies the appropriate social service agencies.

Reacting to residents' calls for service is only a small part of the program, however. The senior citizens police advocate spends most of the workday in the community, conducting crime prevention programs and speaking to residents. In this way, the advocate identifies individuals in need of assistance before any contact with the police becomes necessary. Further, the East Providence Protective Services Council--which includes members of the city's police, fire, mental health, welfare, social services, housing, zoning, and planning departments--meets monthly to discuss specific cases involving elderly citizens.


To assist senior victims of crime further, the department focuses on prevention. In cooperation with local church groups, the Rotary Club, and senior citizen residential complexes, the community crime prevention officer presents quarterly talks on different topics involving personal safety, such as avoiding accidents, recognizing frauds and scams, and upgrading security. The success of these programs depends on involving as many seniors citizens as possible, and the department uses every means available to inform residents of upcoming meetings.


Once the Senior Citizens Police Advocate Program was in place, the advocate began to receive calls directly from the dispatcher, which eased the workload of patrol officers. And, while these calls grew in number each year since the program's inception in 1991, they now demonstrate an awareness of the existence of the department's advocate, as well as the citizens' new willingness to report crimes to the police. In fact, East Providence's program proved so successful that every department in the State of Rhode Island now has its own senior citizens advocate, appointed by the chief of police.


The advocate program relies on the knowledge and experience of its officers. Without proper training, the senior citizens police advocate cannot effectively execute the program. Most important, all officers in the department need to learn about the aging process in order to deal effectively with elderly citizens and to know when they require referral to the advocate. The Rhode Island Municipal Training Academy, in conjunction with the American Association of Retired Persons and the Rhode Island Department of Elderly Affairs, provides training for new recruits, veteran officers, and senior citizens police advocates.

Cadets receive 4 hours of instruction dedicated to the aging process so that they may deal effectively with seniors. Inservice training is conducted semiannually for experienced officers, and all senior citizens police advocates receive yearly training. This training ensures that officers are using proper procedures and are aware of the resources available to assist elderly residents. Further, because most municipal police officers in the State attend the same academy, Rhode Island's citizens benefit from the uniform training that officers receive.


Police managers often discuss the need to practice proactive law enforcement. This approach requires anticipating the needs of the community before they become dire.

The aging population presents unique challenges to police departments throughout the Nation. The success of the East Providence Senior Citizens Police Advocate Program in meeting the needs of the city's fast-growing elderly population can serve as an example for other departments, as they prepare for the future today.

Lieutenant Gilfillan is the Senior Citizens Police Advocate for the East Providence, Rhode Island, Police Department.
COPYRIGHT 1994 Federal Bureau of Investigation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Gilfillan, Christopher J.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Jun 1, 1994
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