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Agencies Struggle to Attract Reserve Officers

Two officers were at a restaurant having lunch when a crackling radio voice froze them in mid-chew, "Baby, non-breather."

October 01, 1996  |  by John Pentelei-Molnar

Heiskell believes the new require­ments will hurt reserve programs, espe­cially at small agencies.

"There are many professionals who would love to be reserves and give something back to their community," says Heiskell. "But there's no way you're going to get them to give up that many hours at one time. If you let them work at it through regulated training periods over a couple of years, then maybe. But that many hours at one time? No way."

Heiskell understands the value of training, but believes a person who already has a full-time job will shy away from volunteering when confront­ed with so many academy hours.

"So many people in this country are so selfish they can't even donate 20 hours a month to community services," says Heiskell. "Reserves work full-time jobs, have families and still have time to put their lives on the line to contribute to their community. Anything you do to discourage them from applying will kill the Level 1 program in a few years."

Heiskell also believes that depart­ments must make themselves available to older, more experienced individuals.

"There's a trade-off between age and experience," he says. "Most academies are designed to tear you down mentally and physically, then build you up. This is necessary when you are dealing with a 21-year-old. But you don't need that with a 42-year-old professional. He just needs to be educated in law enforcement.

''I'm a perfect example," Heiskell adds. "There's no way most agencies could afford a $150,000-a-year doctor. Yet, here I am for free."

A Tough Sell

Reserve programs have always been a double-edged sword for the recruiting efforts of police agencies. On one hand, reserve programs serve as a perfect resource for choosing competent officers who have already demonstrated the abil­ity to be successful officers. This fact makes reserve programs attractive to individuals seeking full-time employ­ment with an agency. Often, a person will become a reserve officer because a particular department is undergoing a hiring freeze, or the individual cannot be hired full time light away. For example, an individual seeking employment with a police agency may also be someone awaiting release from the military.

On the other hand, police depart­ments with identical hiring standards for reserve and full-time officers, as is the case in San Diego, can experience an on-going "gutting" of reserve pools by recruiters searching out those officers wanting full-time employment. In the long run, the only officers left in the pool will be professional reserves. Hence, the problem with Module D-type reserve requirements becomes apparent.

"The guys who want to work full time will just go through a basic POST academy," adds Adams. "They won't even consider a reserve academy. If the hours are the same, why would anyone want to go through a reserve academy?"

The same sentiment holds true when it comes to departments putting the Module D framework into effect.

"POST allows each department to specify how they are going to use their reserve officers," adds Adams. "If I am a chief and I know that if I put my reserves through Module D, they can work for any agency in the state, why would I want to do that and risk losing them?"

Fostering Respect

Reserve officers want respect from the community and other officers. After all, a typical Level I officer in Southern California will have been through hun­dreds of hours of training. He will have worked by himself and responded to many calls for service that some full­time officers may never experience, all in an effort to give back to his communi­ty. Any attempt on a department's part to segregate reserves from full-time officers can cause problems.

"Any time you make reserve officers look or act different from full-time offi­cers, you're causing inherent tensions," says Adams. "When I first started, we had to wear white uniforms that had a large 'Citizen Volunteer' printed on them. Now who's going to take you seri­ously with that printed on you?"

Thankfully, such labels have been eliminated over time, but some divisions still exist. For example, the San Diego Police Department still requires its reserve officers to wear silver badges instead of the gold ones full-time offi­cers wear. Consequently, paid officers will sometimes immediately prejudge an officer's ability simply by the color of his badge.

Furthermore, suspects and the public may question a reserve officer's authori­ty when they see a different color badge emblazoned with "Reserve." This is especially unwarranted and unnecessary, considering the typical Level 1 reserve officer in San Diego has more training hours than many full-time officers in the United States.

"Reserves want to blend and let their actions speak for themselves," says Heiskell.

Adams agrees: "There's a new bill in the California legislature that will allow reserves to be CCW 24 both on and off duty. Right now, you have a reserve work an 8-, 10- or 12-hour shift writing tickets, arresting people and the like. Then you bring him in, strip him of his badge, uniform and gun, and ask him to walk back out the door into the same crowd that he just finished messing with," says Adams. "You wouldn't catch a full-time officer doing that. A reserve faces the same risk and deserves the same respect."

And for those chiefs who claim lia­bility risk as the reason for the difference in treatment, Adams offers this candid reply: "If you trust a reserve officer to drive your police car, uphold the law, partner with full-time officers, arrest people, work alone, etc., what message are you sending him, when you send him home stripped of his peace powers? Where's the respect in that?"

John Pentelei-Molnar is a P.O.S.T. instructor and reserve police officer in San Diego.

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