Why police departments rely on reserve officers

In almost every agency where a reserve officer program exists, there are simply not enough full-time cops in the regular ranks to meet the citizens’ demands for police response — the reserves fill the gaps

Article updated on August 11, 2017.

The debate over the role of the reserve officer has been reignited after Reserve Deputy Robert Charles Bates fatally shot a suspect during an arrest on April 2, 2015, in Tulsa, (Okla.). The incident was recorded on an officer’s body-worn camera, and the video has been released to the public.

The footage reveals that after a foot pursuit, several officers apprehended Eric Harris – who allegedly attempted to sell an illegal gun to an undercover officer – and during a struggle on the ground a shot rang out. A man – one would surmise it to be Bates – can be heard saying, “Oh, I shot him. I'm sorry.” 

Bates said he meant to use his ECD. This is an error that, while uncommon, does happen. As we know, it is called a slip-and-capture error, and the most well-known incident was when Johannes Mehserle accidentally shot and killed Oscar Grant on a commuter train platform in Oakland (Calif.) in 2009. 

Why Do We Have Reserve Police Officers?

Why the 73-year-old insurance company executive was working an arrest detail on an undercover buy operation – for illegal guns no less – is a discussion for another day, but the incident has many citizens asking questions about how reserve (also known as auxiliary) officers even fit into the law enforcement profession at all. 

First and foremost, let’s remember that Mark Vaughan – the man who ended Alton Nolen’s murderous rampage at Vaughan Foods near Oklahoma City last year – was not only the company’s COO, but a reserve deputy sheriff. 

That assailant had already beheaded one woman and was attacking a second victim when Vaughan interceded and ended the threat. 

At that time, Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel said in a statement, “There is every reason to believe that the lives of untold others were saved who would have been targeted by the suspect if it hadn't been for Deputy Vaughan’s actions.”

So how do reserve officers fit into the ranks? Why are they there in the first place?

The short answer is that altogether too often, citizens allow – even encourage – budgets for their police agencies to shrink (or remain stagnant). This inevitably leaves the department without the financial resources to keep the number of full-time officers needed to police their community.

Those same citizens then indignantly demand faster response times.

Police receiving calls asking, “Why haven’t you sent officers to my house to take my report for the burglary?”

We wish we could reply, “Because the subject is long gone, the evidence will be exactly the same in an hour as it is right now, and we’re in the middle of a search for a missing Alzheimer’s patient at the moment. We’re running a shift with 75 percent of the manpower we had five years ago, and we’re getting 25 percent more calls for service. We’re strapped. Sorry, your missing television is going to be missing forever. Call your insurance company.”

But we can’t say that.

What we can say is, “One of our reserve officers will be there to take your report when he comes on duty for his shift at the PD.”

Meeting Demand Requires Supply

In almost every agency where a reserve officer program exists, there are simply not enough full-time cops in the regular ranks to meet the citizens’ demands for police response – the reserves fill the gaps.

In some agencies, those reserves have full arrest powers, and are fully certified in the same way as their full-time counterparts. 

In some departments, reserves work in full uniform, but don’t carry weapons or make arrests – their duties may only include doing community relations, traffic control, and providing additional staffing at sporting events and festivals. 

Some reserves are purely seasonal – this is especially the case in tourist destinations, particularly small, sleepy seaside towns where the vacation rentals remain dormant in winter, but summertime occupancy can mushroom the demand for police response.

In each case, they fulfill a need. In almost all cases, they are also a subject that can start a heated argument among full-time LEOs. Back in 2011, I compiled a host of comments on either side of this debate when writing on the subject of reserves for this article. Here’s a representative sample:

  • “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?” 
  • “Cops who oppose a well-run reserve program are, in my opinion, both selfish and narrow-minded. The good done within the department and within the community by dedicated and well-trained reserves is extremely beneficial.”

And in that article, I noted that there are four basic groups in the ranks of the reserves: 

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.’
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. 

In the wake of the tragic event in Oklahoma, people in the press and the public are questioning the need for reserve police officers.

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