The city of Lincoln’s “Grandma Cop” program used to have a more prosaic name before a certain intergenerational encounter.

“I had just taught safety classes and a little girl ran out to her grandma and said, ‘Grandma, that’s Grandma Cop!’” recalled Marilyn Thomas. “I said, ‘That’s a neat name.’ I went to my chief (Lincoln Police Chief Brian Vizzusi) and said I had my new name.”

Other cities around the state are looking to replicate the warm feel — and maybe even the cute name. Lincoln’s Grandma Cop program received a burst of publicity and a display table at the League of California Cities convention in September.

The league gave Grandma Cop one of its Helen Putnam awards recognizing civic innovations.

The program sends retiree volunteers to elementary school classrooms to give children awareness of personal safety issues — including home alone situations, cyberspace, strangers, bicycle and traffic safety, and bullying.

So many cities have inquired about Grandma Cop that Lincoln has scheduled a conference to tell about its best practices. That’s set for 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Feb. 24 at the Lincoln Police Department.

Marilyn Thomas is at home in front of a classroom. She was an elementary teacher for decades in Azusa, Los Angeles County.

“It’s really something when she’s teaching the curriculum and talking about child safety, using puppets,” said Paul Shelgren, a lieutenant in the Lincoln Police Department. “You’ll see a couple kids in front start speaking in Spanish back and forth, and then Marilyn makes the translation into Spanish. Their eyes light up. ‘Hey, this lady understands what we’re saying!’”

Volunteerism is all in the family for Marilyn and Les Thomas. He coordinates the COP (Citizens on Patrol) program for a wide variety of volunteers helping the police, while she coordinates about 10 volunteers for Grandma Cop, focusing on elementary-age children.

“We have up to 60 volunteers and growing from all walks of life and all cross-sections,” said Shelgren. “We have a former police officer, a teaching administrator, a former vice president of Lockheed and other Fortune 500 companies. It’s an unbelievable pool of seniors making contributions to the city.”

The Thomases first retired to Laguna Beach. Marilyn volunteered with a child safety program allied with the police department there, and has used some of that experience to build the Lincoln program, starting four years ago.

In Lincoln, the idea came from Youth Services Officer Steve Krueger. Mindful of the quiet, affordable city’s growth in the last decade as suburban development spread from Sacramento northward (from 9,000 in the 2000 census to an estimated 42,000 today), Krueger thought the department was covered in the middle and high schools with youth service officers but could use volunteer attention to elementary-school aged children.

He asked Marilyn Thomas to help. The program started small with one elementary school.

It has achieved results. Thomas said she knows of two children who have turned down rides with strangers. She also knows that children come out of her sessions and then turn around and teach safety tips to younger siblings. Maybe some older ones, too.

She was tickled when she heard one student say, “Grandma Cop says to look both ways before you cross the street.”

“I’ve never even said that,” Marilyn marveled. “There are all these safety things in their heads!” Grandma Cop is the Lincoln authority.

“I can’t go anyplace without children saying,’ Hi, Grandma Cop,’” said Thomas. “The teachers even say, ‘If you don’t behave, I guess Grandma Cop won’t be able to come and visit.’” Grandma Cop is the conscience of Lincoln.

“Grandma Cop has filled a void for safety education,” said Shelgren. “It makes our jobs a lot easier.”

For more information about the Feb. 24 Grandma Cop conference for cities and police agencies, contact Lincoln Police Lt. Paul Shelgren, (916) 645-4080.

Lance Howland can be reached at