The reserve officer's role in law enforcement

Maligned by some cops, warmly welcomed by others, reserve police officers are ‘extreme volunteers’ whose contributions to their communities are becoming increasingly visible

If a person wanted to start a heated discussion in the comments field of a PoliceOne column — or in email responses to a survey question — they’d have a handful of sure-fire topics from which they might choose. One such topic, for example, is the matter of reserve police officers. I’ve intended for several months to do a column on reserve officers, and in the Career Newsletter last month I inquired with PoliceOne Members what the prevailing thinking among full-time sworn LEOs is on this subset of the police ranks.

I was unsurprised to find out that while one line of thinking on the subject — supportive of reserves — does seem to dominate the opposing view in sheer volume of responses, those in opposition to such programs are a wee bit more vocal. Let’s begin the discussion on reserve officers by reviewing a sampling of what folks said in reply to that query last month.

PoliceOne Members Speak Out
PoliceOne Member Joe Vargas recently retired from Anaheim (Calif.) Police Department, and in an email to me late last month indicated that reserves have been a part of that agency since he started in the late 1970s. “When I first started, it was strictly a voluntary position with only meals, uniform, and equipment provided,” wrote Vargas. “Beginning in the 80s the position became paid and when I left it was at about $19.00 an hour. Generally, reserves were made up of members of the community seeking to serve and also some seeking to get their foot in the door and get hired. With the downturn in the economy all reserves were restricted in hours and many were laid off. The position has never been used to supplant officer positions and care was taken to ensure that did not occur. Economic realities being what they are, I can see where departments would take a second look at expanding their reserve programs. What other choices do they have? Citizens are reluctant to vote in additional taxation and there is only so much money to go around.”

Terry Scherer, Chief of Police for the LaPorte (Ind.) Police Department said in his email to me, “I believe that reserve officers are useful and valuable to help out police departments. They should never, however, replace full time positions in my opinion. I am very happy with our reserves as they step in and help us when we need the help. The program has also been beneficial in being a pool from which we can recruit full-time officers.”

Lt. Tony Flowers of the Marion (S.C.) Police Department said further, “Our Department consists of 25 full-time sworn officers. As of this date we are currently down to 20 full-time sworn officers. Percentage wise, that comes to 80 percent. We are slotted for four officers per shift. We run four shifts but currently have only three officers on three shifts and one officer on the fourth. That definitely puts us in a bind as officers are steadily having to work overtime. We currently have one reserve officer who probably works more hours for free than 50 percent of the full time officers. He would love to come aboard full time but can’t afford to take a $10,000 to $15,000 pay cut to leave his current job to work as a police officer. He is very motivated and loves helping us out. He is available at a moments notice and never complains about any task he is asked to perform. I feel that the reserve officer program is a definite plus, especially to small departments, and it helps us out tremendously.”

“We have recently hired additional reserve officers to supplement our full-time personnel,” wrote Joseph P. Morris, Chief of Police City of Florence (Colo.) Police Department. “In fact some officers that have left the agency for other law enforcement careers, have remained active as Reserves with the department and their knowledge and expertise has been a valuable asset to the community. The Reserve program has become a first step entry level, into our recruiting process to add full-time officers to the department. Successful candidates selected from the reserve program, are ready to move on to the full-time field training program when hired, having agency experience and training.”

Officer Ben Gilman of the Alexandria (Ind.) Police Department said in an email to me that he himself is a reserve officer. “The role that reserves serve is vital to our departments as well as community. We keep all of the annual training that the Full Time Officers keep and work side by side with them daily performing the same job functions. Our Reserve Academy was very strict with hands on training that lasted months not including our ride along FTO Program before being released to patrol alone. Our Reserves work many hours saving our department money in overtime and staffing costs. While our department may only consist of 13 full time Patrolman cost effectiveness is key to the survival of any department. Our Chief and assistant Chief are very supportive and help with any needs we have, as well as all of the Officers on staff. I don’t have to tell anyone how expensive all the gear we wear is but at least our department has helped out with radios and even vests. All in all I suppose what I am getting at is the Reserve Officers in Alexandria perform well and save the city money at the same time, covering vacations and off time. I am proud to say that I am a police officer in my town and I’m sure where ever you are you can say the same. Reserve or full-time, we still fight the same battles.”

“The reserve program is great for departments to fall back on,” said PoliceOne Member Gordon Corey in his email to me. “Even though most reserves are limited commission, if you have full-commissioned officers who are willing to still volunteer as reserves, that gives departments the opportunity to utilize these officers to fulfill call-ins and vacations from full-time officers. With this option, departments won’t have to worry they will make the wrong decision. With reserves who are just reserves and have full time jobs other than law enforcement jobs only make decisions based on what they learn in the reserve police academy which is far less than what a full time officer is taught in the police academy.”

Finally, there was this email, from another PoliceOne Member who said, “I believe the ‘part time’ system of policing is absolutely ridiculous. The job has changed since walking down the street and spinning your baton. We now encounter more diverse and complicated situations, where we are expected to wear a multitude of hats, and do it perfectly the first time. We contend with more anti-police groups, 24/7 video taping, and more charging and law suit filings then ever before. As such, to do this job without a full salary and full benefits is insane. If every ‘part time’ or reserve officer quit, they’d HAVE to hire full timers. Although relocating is difficult and not always feasible, those laid off may have the option of heading to the larger cities who always hire.”

There are many comments to be found here on PoliceOne which in tenor and number reflect the thoughts above:

“If I suddenly decided I wanted to weld for free the welders union would give me a beat down at the first jobsite I showed up to. Why is it ok for them to do LE work for free but not ok for other professions to experience this?”
“Anyone who does another man’s job for free is a glory hound. If they wanted to ‘protect and serve’ then take the test and take the job and don’t ‘play’ at another man’s calling! We are LEOs and do what we do full time and as I see it, 99 percent of the ‘defenders’ of scabs here — are scabs themselves.”
“Cops who oppose a well-run reserve program are, IMO, both selfish and narrow minded. The good done within the department and within the community by dedicated and well trained reserves is extremely beneficial.”
“I’m a full-timer going on 30 years, I have seen good reserve officers and I have seen bad, just like full timers. There are numerous reasons why people become reserves. One is that they are doing good with their current job and do not wish to leave it and wish to give back to the community they truly love.”
Add your comments here.”

I’ve corrected some grammar and spelling in there, but you get the idea.

Reserves in the News
The impetus for this column was a news item from Chattanooga Times Free Press back in May which said that four reserve officers took their oaths “just in time” to help with storm response, spending their first week guarding the lot where storm-damaged cars were stored and looking for looters. Earlier this month, I read with interest the article about reserve police Sgt. Richard Billian of the Wilton (Maine) Police Department who has assumed the duties of interim chief at the urging of outgoing Chief Page Reynolds. Interestingly, Billian is apparently not interested in applying for the chief position.

Most notably — and most recently — is the item from a few days ago that chronicles the story of a retired U.S. Marine named Roy Bickford, a reserve officer with the Lincoln (Maine) Police Department who “didn’t hesitate or even worry when an elderly woman rushed toward him late last month yelling that her husband wasn’t breathing.” Gunnery Sergeant Bickford, who had previously been decorated for saving lives in the first Gulf War and Somalia, was given a commendation by the Lincoln Town Council for his actions that July afternoon.

Remember PoliceOne Member Joe Vargas from Anaheim, who led off the above collection of comments on reserves? I take care in pointing out that at least one reserve officer during Vargas’ tour with the Anaheim PD was a Devil Dog just like the aforementioned Gunny Bickford. Sadly, though, Anaheim Reserve Officer Edward Smith — who had been named Orange County Reserve Officer of the Year in 2001 — lost his life while leading a company of 200 Marines into Baghdad in 2003. Gunny Smith was survived by his wife and three children.

Five Basic Groups
Looking at reserves from as objective a perspective as one can possibly have, I tend to see reserve officers falling into five basic subsets:

1.) Ordinary citizens — “extreme volunteers” — who want to contribute to the betterment of the society in which they live
2.) Full-time LEOs who have been laid off due to shrinking full-time ranks — or whole departments being consolidated with neighboring agencies or closed down altogether — who are trying to get hired on with another PD
3.) Individuals who are contemplating a career change into law enforcement from their ‘day jobs’ as airline pilots, doctors, attorneys, and business managers
4.) Retired police officers from up and down the ranks who want to stay in law enforcement simply for their sheer love of the job
5.) An inevitable percentage of people who somehow make it into the reserves, and at some point thereafter do something unbefitting of the badge, thereby maligning the abovementioned four other groups

The fifth group appears to be a small minority, but like all bad apples they tend to have a significant impact on their surrounding bushel. I don’t want to dwell too long on this group, but they do exist, and that existence does create a serious perception problem not only for other reserves, but for all LEOs.

For example, there was the recent case in which a Bridgton (Maine) reserve police officer resigned his post following being charged with domestic violence assault. Prior to that, back in June, there was the item about a reserve officer from Gaston (Ind.) who allegedly shot and killed his wife in their home. A couple of years ago there was the reserve officer from the Albuquerque Police Department who came under investigation for a variety of complains, including illegally taking overtime pay. Back in 2007 a reserve officer from Kansas was accused of looting a supermarket following a tornado. 

A Variety of Roles
Maligned by some cops, warmly welcomed by others, one thing is certain: reserve police officers are ‘extreme volunteers’ whose contributions to their communities — both for good and for ill — are becoming increasingly visible. While the requirements and duties vary significantly from one department to the next — some have full powers of operation similar to a regular police official, others have very limited duties such as office work, community relations, traffic control, and searching for missing persons. Some reserves are entirely seasonal — it’s common in beachside locations that have a huge increase in population in the summer months to hire a reserve police officer team on a seasonal basis to help with law enforcement. Reserve officers can serve at things such as state fairs, parades and other large events.

Regardless of their role, at agencies where reserves already exist, they’re not likely to disappear from the department’s plans. At agencies that don’t now have reserve programs, it’s about a 50-50 chance reserves may one day become part of the mix (read: they might, and then again, they might not). Where do you stand? Add your thoughts below, or, as always, send me an email.

About the author

Doug Wyllie is Editor at Large for PoliceOne, providing police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug is the 2014 Western Publishing Association "Maggie Award" winner for Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column, and has authored more than 1,000 articles and tactical tips. Doug hosts the PoliceOne Podcast, Policing Matters, and is the host for PoliceOne Video interviews. Doug is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers' Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA).

Contact Doug Wyllie

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