How one retiree helps the Salinas Police – and learns about people’s reactions to the law.

Fair Play: John Viarengo likes to make sure police vehicles are up to the vehicle rules they enforce.

Salinas retiree John Viarengo, 74, isn’t a police officer, but he was driving an officer’s vehicle through his city a few weeks ago when a woman made an unprotected left turn across his lane. When she saw him coming, she suddenly skidded the car to a stop. 

In the middle of the road.

“Her eyes got as big as saucers,” Viarengo says.

Good-naturedly, he just waved her along – these things happen.

• • •

In 1974, psychologist Leonard Bickman performed a study on the power of uniforms. He had a research assistant put on various uniforms and instruct strangers at a bus stop to perform a simple task. Bickman discovered that twice as many people obeyed when the researcher was wearing a police officer’s uniform than when he was wearing regular clothes or a milkman uniform, even if the “officer” left without checking if the request was adhered to.

A cop car has that same strange power, Viarengo has discovered. If he’s in a police car – even though it’s got an out of service sign on it – everybody slows down. “It’s sort of like Moses spreading the water,” he says.

The car (and the reactions) are some of the perks of volunteering at the Salinas Police Department’s vehicle maintenance division. Viarengo has been volunteering with the police department for 13 years. The lifelong car enthusiast is the proud owner of a ’55 Chevrolet, a ’67 Mustang convertible and an RV, as well as his trusty day-to-day Chevy Heritage High Roof station wagon. He’s been across the country with the 1955 Chevy, and during his travels (including military service) has hit every state except for North Dakota. But a major part of retired life for Viarengo is popping into the Salinas Police Department twice a week.

It’s a service that’s much appreciated. Without volunteers like Viarengo – there are two others who pitch in – work at the vehicle maintenance division would “be crazy,” especially now that workers are furloughed Fridays, says Edwin Limbo, a senior staff member at the vehicle maintenance division.

The division gets several work orders a day – things like “Brake ABS light is on” or “Vehicle smells bad” – and there are only two people on staff. Having volunteers who can drive cars to repair centers, do routine checkups, work on minor fixes and take the vehicles out on road tests is huge.

While Viarengo knows the symbolic power of a cop car, he also knows there are limits. Once, when he was in college, he accompanied his father, a police chief, on a trip down to Los Angeles to pick up a prisoner. His dad let him drive, and he got to cruising around 80 miles per hour.

His father looked at the meter, and said, “You can get a ticket for that.”

That gave Viarengo pause – a cop getting pulled over by the California Highway Patrol?

“I didn’t know that,” he says. “I slowed down.”

• • •

Behind the Salinas P.D. is a parking lot that at any given time is packed with about 30 police cars.

Viarengo pulls a “black and white” into the department’s small garage, which was once part of the jail.

He pops the hood and pokes around, whipping out clamps to check the starter, the battery and the alternator.

When he’s satisfied, he slams the hood. Hard.

“You don’t want the hood to pop open at 120 miles per hour,” he says.

He flips on the flashing blue and red police lights, tests the siren, and jabs the horn. One of the last things he checks is the license plate light. He’s a stickler for that, even though it’s a minor detail. If someone’s going to be stopped for not having theirs on, the police officer’s better be working too, he says.

It’s all fairly typical garage work for Viarengo, who spent part of his career in the Salinas Union High School district as an auto shop teacher. The more dramatic moments happen on the road. Once, when he was sitting at a stoplight by a gas station, he noticed two elderly women in separate cars get into the wrong-facing lane after pulling out of the station. Viarengo swung into the gas station and jumped out of his car.

“I ran up to the two cars and I said, ‘Ladies, ladies, ladies! You’re going the wrong way!’” he remembers.

Later, he recounted the affair to the sergeant in charge.

“Oh God John,” the officer said. “I should give you a [ticketing] book.”

Viarengo says he might end his volunteering days soon. For any other retirees out there with some time and skills on their hands, he has two words: “Very rewarding.” 

To volunteer with the Salinas Police Department, call 758-7164.

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