The crime analysis unit of the Virginia Beach, Va., police department got a hunch. The group, made up of citizen volunteers and full-time police officers, learned that two brothers in prison for burglary had just been released. A standard check on them revealed that the brothers were living back at home.
The crime analysis group had reason to believe the two weren't likely to retire from their old profession. A surveillance was ordered by the police department. A week later the brothers were caught carrying stolen TVs into the house.
Police departments across the country are finding that volunteers can effectively bridge the widening gap between rising crime and shrinking budgets. Several hundred volunteers are now involved in one nationwide crime-analysis program in some 50 police departments. Participants in the program, sponsored by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), pinpoint burglaries, robberies, and assaults on city maps and analyze data to predict where future crimes might occur.
The idea is to use uniformed officers more efficiently. ''Random patrol has little or no chance of stumbling onto crime or of solving existing cases, but analysis can target a problem,'' says Stephen Stiles, a program specialist in the criminal justice services of AARP.
Raw information that already exists in the form of reports on individual crimes is organized and analyzed in hopes of locating high-crime areas, identifying suspects, or providing investigative leads.
While police departments acknowledge the value - even the necessity - of crime analysis, most cannot afford to establish a crime-analysis unit staffed by salaried officers.
One solution has proved to be volunteers. Their use in crime analysis has spread rapidly since the AARP program began less than a decade ago and has won plaudits virtually everywhere it's been installed. Sgt. Charles Hill, who administers the crime analysis program for the Jacksonville, Fla., police department, says volunteers ''have had a tremendous impact.''
Many police departments place four or five volunteers under a full-time police crime analyst in each of their precincts. While some of the work is rote, the volunteers free analysts who had been spending 80 percent of their time on clerical duties and 20 percent on analysis, according to Mr. Stiles.
But ''we don't use them as cut-and-pasters,'' says William Barone, a crime analyst in the Virginia Beach police department who oversees the work of the volunteers. ''After having been here two years, they're coming into their own. Sometimes they'll spot patterns before I do.''
Initially the program met with some resistance, and it is still not welcomed by some police unions that fear it will cause officers to lose their jobs or clog promotional channels for patrol personnel ready for desk jobs.
''The displacement of officers is an unjustified fear,'' says Sergeant Hill. ''It's just not possible to hire more policemen.'' He argues the program expands the role of officers by providing more investigative activity.
For the volunteers, many of them well-educated, the program has also filled a void. ''I came down from Michigan in 1978 and got real tired real fast of golfing, golfing, golfing,'' says Ed Eklund, a volunteer in the Virginia Beach police department. ''I wanted to get involved and do something worthwhile.''
Many of the early crime analysis programs were started with money contributed by the now-defunct Law Enforcement Assistance Administration. But the current program continues to expand even though those funds are no longer available.
The Richmond, Va., police department began a program last year despite the lack of a budget. The department had no crime analysis unit, but now keeps 15 volunteers busy.