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Capt. Reggie Grigsby of the Oceanside (Calif.) Police Department explains the Waste Watch program to solid waste collectors in San Diego. Photo: Waste Management
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Unlike the gun-toting garbageman Cuba Gooding Jr. portrays inHero Wanted, Waste Watch participants are trained only to report crime, not stop it. Photo: Sony Pictures

By Jenni Spinner

Police and public works budgets are stretched to the max, forcing municipal officials to cut left and right. Implementing new programs is nearly unheard of.

However, one program is being added to solid waste departments across the country — and it doesn't cost a thing.

In 2004, Houston-based solid waste giant Waste Management launched Waste Watch, an initiative designed to bolster a community's law-enforcement efforts by training haulers to identify and report suspicious or dangerous activities. The company offers the training program at no cost; participants watch a video and listen to advice from sheriff's deputies or other local law enforcement officials.

The program is a far cry from the 2008 movie Hero Wanted, however, in which Cuba Gooding Jr. plays a solid waste collector who moves from emptying trashcans into his truck to emptying bullets into evildoers. According to Waste Management Marketing Director Jim Karls, participants are directed only to observe and report to police — not to tackle the bad guys themselves.

During training, collectors learn common signs of crime and terrorist activity — abandoned or illegally parked vehicles, large containers out of place, people peering surreptitiously into windows — and how to respond if they encounter a crime in progress. To date, more than 100 communities have implemented Waste Watch. Public officials largely have responded positively to the program's zero-dollar price tag and use of existing resources to solve a problem.

“Who's going to see more of the comings and goings of the neighborhood than the people who haul waste up and down alleys, up and down blocks, on a regular basis?” says Tom Dart, Cook County (Ill.) sheriff. Several cities and towns in the county, including Alsip, Orland Park, Palos Heights, and Chicago Ridge, have launched the program.

In Michigan, collectors reportedly have helped crack down on illicit meth labs, put the kibosh on robberies, and foil identity theft. Already in place in several Michigan cities and towns, including Battle Creek, the program is being expanded to Lansing, Grand Rapids, and other municipalities.

The City of Phoenix deployed Waste Watch earlier this year. According to Public Safety Manager Jack Harris, officials there view the program as a logical extension of other patrol efforts, such as Phoenix Neighborhood Patrol and Block Watch, both of which train citizens to keep an eye out for suspicious goings-on in their neighborhoods. “Through November 2009, Phoenix Neighborhood Patrol members have worked nearly 19,000 hours, and that means they've saved the city more than $380,000,” he says.

In 2009, two Waste Management collectors in Allentown, Pa., spotted a trio of miscreants spray-painting various buildings. They notified police, who apprehended the teenagers and later charged them with spraying more than 130 tags. The act of good citizenship, however, came well before the city adopted Waste Watch. According to Police Chief Roger MacLean, enlisting collectors in battling criminals is a smart move because they're essentially patrolling the town on their routes and law enforcement could use their help.

“This partnership gives us additional roving eyes, including times when most of our citizens are sleeping,” he says.

— Jenni Spinner is a Chicago-based freelance writer and former associate editor of PUBLIC WORKS.