Va. auxiliary officers getting same uniform as regulars

By Mark Bowes
The Richmond Times-Dispatch

VIRGINIA You've seen them on bicycle patrol at the county fair, providing mall security during the Christmas shopping season, directing traffic in emergencies or searching for a suspect.

They have most of the powers of a regular police officer, but they aren't dressed quite the same.

These 27 men and women, known as the Chesterfield Auxiliary Police Unit, are state-certified law enforcement officers who carry guns and make arrests when necessary. But they volunteer their time instead of being paid to serve and protect.

Now, after years of looking like the stepchildren of Chesterfield law enforcement, the auxiliary officers will wear the same uniforms as their paid colleagues.

The auxiliary unit is being issued standard green uniforms to replace the blue and gray ones they've worn since their beginning in 1967. A change in state law prompted the switch.

The General Assembly in 2004 removed many of the powers granted to special police units, so Chesterfield acted to change its volunteer force from a "special" unit to an "auxiliary" one. That allowed the volunteers to continue working as they did.

It also freed them from a provision of the old law that prohibited "special" police units from wearing the same uniform worn by Chesterfield's paid officers, or those of any surrounding jurisdictions and the Virginia State Police.

With the change, Chesterfield police officials urged the auxiliary unit to begin wearing the county green and black, said Capt. Perry Hornbarger, commander of the auxiliary force.

"We felt that the auxiliary officers were more in line with being seen as a [regular] law-enforcement officer, [so] we wanted to change the color of their uniforms," said Maj. John Austin, commander of uniformed patrol operations.

Some officers, including Hornbarger, have already received new uniforms; the unit plans to make the transition complete by early September, he said.

But the auxiliary unit did decide to keep one little part of its individuality. Officers will retain their black-and-silver patches, which resemble those worn by regular police officers except for their color and wording.

The job of the auxiliary force, which can trace its roots to the civil-defense units of the 1950s, is not to replace officers on the street but to assist them in their duties as a supplemental resource.

The unit is about 23 members shy of its authorized strength of 50. "We're obviously recruiting all the time," according to Hornbarger.

The volunteers include retirees and people from other professions who have an interest in law enforcement, but "for whatever reason didn't do it" as a career, Hornbarger. Their average age is 54.

"They pretty much run the gamut from blue-collar workers to white-collar workers," Hornbarger said of the auxiliary force, which logged about 12,000 hours of service last year. "I retired from the fire department after 33 years."

Other members of the force have included a postmaster, a lawyer and a psychologist.

The volunteers must complete the minimum state-required standards for police officers in Virginia.

"They have to go through the same training that any police officer, at the basic level, has to meet to be certified," Austin said, "as well as maintaining in-service training and firearms qualifications."

The county provides the auxiliary officers with their equipment, including a standard-issue firearm. "The only thing that we're not issued that the county officers have is a car, a personal radio and a shotgun," Hornbarger said.

Copyright 2007 Richmond Times-Dispatch

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