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Dog patrol: 'Golden girls' watch for scofflaws at South Portland's Willard Beach

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Dog patrol: 'Golden girls' watch for scofflaws at South Portland's Willard Beach

SOUTH PORTLAND — Susan Larrivee and Michelle Danois walked along the retreating waterline at Willard Beach shortly after 5:30 p.m. on Aug. 19. 

But, unlike dozens of other people on the beach, they were not there to soak up the last rays of sunlight on the picturesque evening.

Instead, they were making sure that dog owners were complying with a city ordinance that only allows dogs on the beach between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. from May through September.

Larrivee, 56, and Danois, 60, are part of a new initiative by the South Portland Police Department to use volunteers to keep an eye on the beach while they also educate visitors about the city's dog laws. 

The pair graduated last year from the Citizens Oriented Policing School offered by seven local and regional police departments.

Officer Linda Barker said the COPS program was so successful, the department established a Volunteers In Policing program for the department, a nationwide movement started after the 9/11 attacks.

There are five VIPS, all women. They also help the department during community events, like National Night Out. 

One of the VIPs is Cape Elizabeth resident Mary Irace, who is the comedian of the group. Literally. She will be appearing at the Comedy Connection in Portland on Aug. 29.

The 55-year-old described the group this way: "We're like the Golden Girls in VIP shirts."

Rounding out the team are Cathy Wiles and Cindy McBrady, both 53.

Each patrol is given a police radio and have been instructed to contact an officer, should any dog owner become hostile or blatantly ignore instructions to take their dogs off the beach until legal house.

So far, that has not happened. Lt. Frank Clark said no summonses have been issued as a result of the groups efforts.

"This is more of an educational thing, rather than an enforcement thing," he said.

The volunteers are also collecting information for police, who receive complaints about dogs on the beach every year. Clark said the information will give the department a clear assessment of problems, if there are any, in the event the issue again boils to the political surface.

Dogs on Willard Beach have been a source of contention in recent years, culminating in a citizen-initiated effort to institute a ban, which failed by a wide margin last November. A common thread throughout the debate was the need for more enforcement on the beach.

Barker said volunteers allow the department to meet that needs, without pulling officers from the street. "We just don't have the man hours for officers to hang out on the beach," she said.

When a dog owner is in violation, the volunteers, who work in groups of two or three, inform the owner about the law and offer a flier outlining the rules for dog access. Those rules also requires pets to be under voice control when they are off leash.

While dogs are also allowed on the beach from 7-9 a.m., most of the patrols occur at night, when there are families and children in the area.

At the end of each shift, the volunteers fill out a report indicating the number of dogs spotted on the beach outside of legal hours, the number of fliers handed out and their interactions with owners.

As of Aug. 18, Barker said volunteers had observed 17 dogs on the beach outside of legal hours. No summonses have been issued and everyone has complied when told about their violations, she said.

Word has apparently reached dog owners, too. Only one dog owner tried to enter the beach on Aug. 19 prior to the legal hours (although the police cruiser parked at the entrance may have kept others away).

Ferry Village resident Alexandra Terzic, who was strolling along the beach, stopped to compliment the group's efforts.

"I'm always here," she said, noting that she has seen dogs on the beach as early as 4:30 p.m. before the patrols started. "These ladies are doing a great job." 

The volunteers have collected a variety of excuses from violators, too, some of whom, despite being residents, claimed ignorance. Danois, who collects litter and sea glass while on patrol, has also collected the best excuse.

"We had someone tells us that they did vote (for the ordinance)," Danois said, "so it didn't apply to her."

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net