Trending Topics

The benefits of reserve officers in modern policing

Utilizing the strengths and expertise of volunteers for ultimate agency transparency


Photo/Ross Wolf

By Dr. Ross Wolf and Dr. Adam Dobrin

Police agencies in the United States are largely based upon the model of Sir Robert Peel’s London-based Metropolitan Police and his nine principles of policing.

Peel’s seventh principle focused on the importance for the police “to maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police.” This principle’s importance to modern policing is evident in current police-community relations. What better way to ensure that those in the community can relate with and understand the role of policing in society than to properly train them to serve in part-time roles while also serving in other positions and roles in society?

Enlisting members of society to serve in roles within police agencies allows for the ultimate transparency, enabling community members to provide input, understand the role and function of policing, and learn first-hand about the complexities of serving society in this role.

Defining reserve policing

Reserve officers are utilized in paid part-time roles, or more often, as volunteers. [1] There is great variation in the way that part-time paid and part-time volunteers are authorized in different states to perform police functions and the ways that they are utilized by different agencies within those states.

‘‘Reserve’’ and ‘‘auxiliary’’ officers are the titles generally given to these positions but are often called other titles such as “Special Police,” “Special Constable,” or similar. For the remainder of this article, we will refer to all these roles as reserve officers.

Research shows that 30–35% of all public safety organizations in the USA utilize reserve officers. With over 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States, more than 5,000 policing agencies are believed to use these officers in some capacity. The total estimate of reserve police and deputies in the United States at approximately 77,500, which is just slightly more than 11% of the 697,195 full-time city and county police officers in the United States. [2, 3]

How do reserve officers benefit policing agencies?

Some have argued that reserve officers impede the ability of LE agencies to secure necessary budgets to fill full-time officer positions. However, many agencies throughout the country have successfully incorporated reserve units to enhance service to their communities, supplementing and not replacing existing police services, without any negative consequences to agency funding or to personnel.

Examples of these successful programs can be found with the Phoenix (Arizona) Police Reserve Division, the Dallas (Texas) Police Department Reserve Division, the Orange County (Florida) Sheriff’s Office Reserve Unit, the Orange County (California) Sheriff’s Department Reserve Bureau, Washington DC Reserve Police Corps and the Florida Highway Patrol Auxiliary. While this short list provides examples of large successful programs, there are also numerous smaller successful programs found throughout the country.

Reserve officer demographics

Reserve officers may come from former or retired full-time police, but and perhaps more significantly, may also be recruited from the community. Some of these reserves have no desire to serve as full-time police and see reserve policing as an opportunity to serve their community. Others may experience reserve policing and decide to move from part-time roles to full-time positions, sometimes making up large portions of recruit classes. [1]

Often those recruited to serve part-time roles decide that this is something that they want to do as a career. Countless police leaders can point to the time they spent as a reserve officer as the impetus for moving to a full-time position and policing as a career. Conversely, many who formerly served as full-time officers find that they enjoy continuing in part-time roles after retirement. These personnel may find that they join reserve programs after leaving full-time service because it allows them to continue in a role that they have dedicated their lives to doing, serving their community. This also has the advantage to the agency of continuing valuable institutional memory.

[Reserve officer profile: The doctor is in: Calif. reserve officer serves on the SWAT team]

Return on investment

Volunteer policing is not free. Volunteer police officers donate their time to their communities to serve in roles that require a significant amount of agency financial resources to provide training, equipment, background checks and administrative support. However, the return on investment can be tremendous by leveraging the many hours and expertise donated by the volunteer officers into cost-efficient assets for the agency. Many agencies require reserve officers to work 8 to 16 hours per month, and most work far more than their required minimum.

Many agencies have adapted their programs to match the reserve officer’s interests, skills and expertise with the needs of the agency.

Although patrol is a major activity performed by reserve officers, agencies also rely on additional supplements to full-time staff for seasonal needs or special events, including parades and sporting events, weather emergencies, and search and rescue. Agencies may also use part-time officers in specialized units such as marine and dive-team units, search and rescue, mounted units, training units, community policing specialty programs, children’s programs, driving under the influence checkpoints, and other various special events. [4]

If reserve police are assigned to these roles, it is the responsibility of the policing agency to ensure that the officers are provided or have received the additional training needed. Agencies throughout the United States have found that requiring part-time officers to maintain specialized training is not only possible but may make the part-time officer feel better about the role that they play in the safety and security of their community.


Reserve officers, whether they are volunteer or paid, must be properly trained to perform the role that they are assigned. This limits agency liability but also is important for reserves to feel confident in their responsibilities. [5, 6] Proper training also ensures that reserve officers are not considered as lower-tier or lesser police than their full-time counterparts.

When reserve officers are asked about negative experiences in their roles, they most often point to a lack of support from some of their full-time colleagues. [4] However, innovative agencies have successfully incorporated reserves into the fabric of their command system, some even putting experienced and well-trained reserves in supervisory roles for full-time officers.

[Reserve officer profile: To serve and protect, USC trauma surgeon moonlights as LAPD cop]


Although many agencies have resisted the significant commitment to form a reserve unit, those that have point to increased overall community relationships, financial benefits, the capability to supplement police units with experienced and well-trained personnel, and the ability to call on a ready reserve of talented and trained individuals when needed due to natural or man-made disasters, or when a jurisdiction experiences a temporary increase in population due to an event or a season.

However, there needs to be a better understanding of reserve policing in the United States through improved data collection. Currently, the Law Enforcement Management and Administrative Statistics (LEMAS) survey is the only national estimate of the number of volunteer police, and it does not collect relevant data every iteration. In addition, although the LEMAS survey is methodologically sound, relying on extrapolated data from a small sample collected every few years is not as beneficial to researchers and policymakers as an annual full enumeration, like that of full-time paid officers that the FBI collects in the UCR system. [1]

If your agency is considering the benefits of a reserve program, it is important to understand the laws of your state as every state in the United States is unique in how they legislatively address reserve police. By building a well-trained and supported program, police administrators can deliver a valuable resource to connect with communities and provide fiscally responsible supplemental services.


1. Dobrin A. (2017). Volunteer police: History, benefits, costs and current descriptions. Security Journal, 30, 717–733.

2. Dobrin A, Wolf R. (2016). What is known and not known about volunteer policing in the United States. International Journal of Police Science & Management, 18(3), 220-227.

3. FBI. (2019). 2019 Crime in the United States, Table 4 Full-time law enforcement employees.

4. Wolf R, Holmes S, Jones C. (2016). Utilization and satisfaction of volunteer law enforcement officers in the office of the American sheriff: An exploratory nationwide study. Police Practice and Research: An International Journal, 17(5), 448-462.

5. Wolf R, Pepper I, Dobrin A. (2017). An exploratory international comparison of professional confidence in volunteer policing. The Police Journal: Theories, Practice, and Principles, 90(2), 91-106.

6. Pepper I. (2014). Do part-time volunteer police officers aspire to be regular police officers? The Police Journal, 87(2):105-113.

About the authors

Dr. Ross Wolf is Interim Assistant Provost and Professor at the University of Central Florida and Reserve Chief Deputy with the Orange County (Florida) Sheriff’s Office. Dr. Wolf has over 30 years of experience as a full-time and reserve deputy and has served in patrol, as a field training officer, specialized patrol and criminal investigations as a detective. He was appointed to and serves on the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) Police Administration Committee and the International Managers of Police Academy and College Training Section. He also serves on the National Sheriffs’ Association (NSA) Outreach Committee and Reserve Law Enforcement Subcommittee, and as president of the Volunteer Law Enforcement Officer Alliance (VLEOA). He has authored over 50 refereed articles, professional articles, book chapters and books on police interviewing, police administration and management, reserve and volunteer policing, police use of force, tourism policing and international policing. In addition to his work with police agencies throughout the United States, he has worked with the police in the Caribbean, the United Kingdom, Russia, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia, Dubai and Singapore. In addition to other law enforcement awards, he has been presented with the United States “Daily Point of Light” Award, the National Sheriffs’ Association “Medal of Merit” Award, the “J. Edgar Hoover Memorial Gold Medal for Distinguished Public Service” from the American Police Hall of Fame, and the US Presidential “Lifetime Call to Service” Award for his work with volunteer and reserve policing.

Dr. Adam Dobrin is an Associate Professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida Atlantic University. Dr. Dobrin has years of non-profit leadership experience, including co-founding and holding leadership positions in two international healthcare policy entities. Through these affiliations, he presented his research at the US Capitol for the Congressional Briefing on Juvenile Justice and later the Congressional Briefing Predicting and Preventing Homicide and Other Violence. Dr. Dobrin was an Academic Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy, where part of his Fellowship involved overseas travel for an intensive immersion in the world of terrorism and the ways the political, diplomatic, military, intelligence and criminal justice systems respond to or prevent it. More recently, he traveled to the Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center at New Mexico Tech to become a certified instructor on the prevention and response to suicide bombing incidents. Dr. Dobrin has also published numerous articles and presented at conferences on topics related to volunteer policing. He serves as a reserve deputy with the St. Lucie County (FL) Sheriff’s Office and was awarded his university’s first Presidential Award for Outstanding Faculty-Led Community Engagement for Engaged Service in 2017 for his volunteer work as a road patrol deputy. He also serves as a member of the Board of Directors for the Volunteer Law Enforcement Officer Alliance (VLEOA).