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Features

Reserve Officers: For Love of the Job

In many jurisdictions reserves do the same jobs and face the same dangers as full-time officers for very little compensation.

March 04, 2014  |  by - Also by this author

Photo: iStockphoto.com
Photo: iStockphoto.com

A dollar a year.

That's the annual base salary a reserve deputy gets from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department for his or her service.

At minimum, that service will include logging 20 hours a month regardless of obligations posed by the reserve's regular job and family responsibilities. He may find himself working his own patrol car, standing guard in the cold along a parade route, or handling that "change of shift" report nobody else wanted.

Uniforms? Equipment? Out of pocket.

To the street cop whose paycheck and benefits do not assuage concerns over his or her own sanity, this might well appear to be genuine madness. And yet there remain vast numbers of white- and blue-collar workers who regularly subject themselves to such rigors—and of their own volition.

Full-Time Assets

Evan Wagner is one of them.

The level 1D reserve deputy is assigned to Los Angeles County's Lakewood Sheriff Station, generally working a solo patrol car in the city of Paramount, just east of Compton.

"I try to work two to three nights per week," says Wagner. "I like handling my calls, hunting, and backing my partners. It doesn't feel like work to me, so I don't care about not getting paid. I love it."

He must. Averaging about 1,400 volunteer work hours a year for Los Angeles County, Wagner made 160 arrests, recovered 29 stolens (three rolling), and made two firearm-related arrests within a recent 12-month period. All this on top of working 40 hours or more at his day job. For his efforts, Wagner was recognized as LASD's Patrol Reserve Deputy of the Year for 2013.

By any name, the people donning the uniform on a part-time basis prove a full-time asset, helping to bolster the numbers of uniformed personnel patrolling the streets and playing an active role in making streets safer. Departments use reserve units to perform a variety of roles, with some officers conducting foot and bike patrols, as well as routine vehicle patrol. Beyond assisting with vehicular and pedestrian traffic, they may provide additional uniformed police presence in schools and shopping areas and help perpetuate a perception of police omnipresence in the communities they serve. Reserves even serve as detectives, handling their own case loads. Some specialized details, such as LASD's internationally esteemed Search-and-Rescue Unit (which performed 560 rescues during 2012), are comprised entirely of reserve personnel.

Reserves can also perform non-uniformed services, working at the range, following up on cold cases, tutoring inmates, and providing event security—all work that otherwise would go undone or be delayed at cash-strapped departments.

As a vast majority of reserves have full-time jobs, they are also ambassadors of law enforcement to members of the civilian community who may have limited experiences with law enforcement.

"Most of my co-workers, my family, and my non-cop friends really only deal with the police when they're getting a traffic ticket, which they usually don't appreciate," notes Wagner. "So knowing me may soften their feelings for law enforcement and often I can put issues in context."

Reserves do more than make favorable impressions. West Hollywood, Calif., Reserve Deputy Shervin Lalezary arrested a serial arson suspect in 2011 and received well-deserved praise in the media. After describing the LASD Reserve Program on national television, Ellen DeGeneres thanked Dep. Lalezary for his service by tripling his reserve salary when she handed him two $1 bills. Other reserve officers nationwide have received numerous awards, including the Medal of Valor.

Dangerous Work

Some have paid the ultimate price. Last November, Oregon City, Ore., Reserve Officer Robert Libke was killed in the line of duty while searching for an armed man who had set fire to his own house. Police Chief Jim Band, who had worked closely with Libke during his four years as a reserve officer, commended Libke's intervention for having saved the lives of others during a rapidly evolving crisis.

"He was an outstanding officer and a great friend to many of our employees," recalls Band. "He made us proud to wear a uniform because of the way he did his job."

Libke was posthumously awarded the Medal of Valor, Purple Heart, Distinguished Service Medal, and the Chief's Medal of Merit.

Who Are the Reserves?

As there is no singular reason that people want to serve as police reserves, it follows that a cross-section of humanity is represented within the reserve ranks. Bankers, lawyers, and doctors, as well as blue-collar workers volunteer their time to take on the challenges of law enforcement. And in doing so, they bring with them a variety of skills and experiences that enhance the service their agencies provide to their communities.

Retired full-time officers occasionally return to the streets in a reserve capacity. Obviously, this has several advantages: There's potentially no hiring process or training costs, their experience and institutional/community knowledge is preserved, and their previously costly labor is now free, potentially for years or decades.

Celebrities, too, have taken the oath to protect citizens of their jurisdictions. NBA star Shaquille O'Neal, martial arts expert and movie star Steven Seagal, and rocker Ted Nugent have all been reserve officers. Comedian Dan Aykroyd was sworn in as a reserve deputy in Hinds County, Miss., in late January. LASD's ranks literally swelled when "Hulk" actor Lou Ferrigno became a reserve deputy in 2006. He was hardly the first superhero actor to make that leap; Van Williams spent years working as a reserve after his stint on the 1960s TV show "The Green Hornet" alongside Bruce Lee's Kato.

"I love that I can give back to my community and anyone that needs help with search and rescue," notes Ferrigno, whose tours of duty occasion some unexpected reactions. "I enjoy doing search and rescue as a reserve deputy. We had a woman who'd fainted in the mountains and needed assistance. We get to her and when we bring her back to consciousness she looks up at me and says, 'Are you Lou Ferrigno, the Hulk?' When I told her I was she got all excited and fainted again.

"I felt so bad. We were here to help her, not to make her faint again. Everything turned out fine, but I always laugh about that story."

An Apprenticeship

While a sense of civic duty and a desire to help propelled Ferrigno into the reserve ranks, others' motives may be more mercenary in nature. Opportunities to legally carry a firearm on- or off-duty, or to network in furtherance of their careers, are not unknown in the law enforcement reserve community.

Some agencies' reserves do get paid, and some reserves hope their reserve status will serve as a springboard to full-time status. For some, that optimism is well-founded, as agencies such as the Glendale (Calif.) Police Department regularly hire full-time officers from their reserve ranks. For others, there are no guarantees or shortcuts. Even though its reserve academy meets the same standards as its regular one, LASD currently requires its reserves to reapply and attend the regular academy before hiring them on full-time.

"I could probably lateral somewhere else easier than getting a full-time job at my agency," notes Wagner. "I know some reserves who have lateraled to another agency for that reason and I know others that have gone through the entire process over again at ours because they wanted to be a Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriff and nothing else."

Unarmed On Duty

Not all agencies have reserves. Illinois statutes don't allow for them. Chicago's "Police Aide" program withered and died within two years of its mid-1990's founding. And many that do have reserve programs don't allow their reserves the right to carry. "General Reserve Officers" in Washington, D.C., (not one of the nation's safest cities) perform patrol and other uniformed public functions but are unarmed.

To be sure, there are legitimate concerns as to the degree reserves are trained.

In California, reserve training is modular so the roughly 900 hours of required training are divided into three modules, with Level 3s armed but confined to administrative support work and Level 2s allowed to patrol with strict supervision. Level 1 reserve officers are full-time equivalents and hold 24-hour peace officer status.

The ability of reserve officers to carry weapons while off duty varies widely by department. While NYPD's auxiliary officers are authorized to deploy deadly force in those circumstances where such force would be justifiable if deployed by a regular officer, they might have a hard time effecting that force without the ability to carry firearms on duty. The deaths of two NYPD auxiliary officers who were chased down and executed in 2007 stirred discussion of arming auxiliary officers, but little traction.

Training Standards

Patrol trained reserves typically have to complete a formal field training program, though execution varies widely by department.

Harvey E. Morse, a sergeant with the Holly Hill (Fla.) Police Department, runs the reserve program for his agency, which revamped its criteria for reserve training.

"Our reserves have all completed the 'full' police academy in Florida, and not the 'auxiliary' training, which is much less hours. We are currently bringing on reserves who agree to assume a full-time position when one becomes available. If we do not have that understanding, then those folks need to seek affiliation elsewhere from the start. Each reserve must be able to handle everything that a full-time officer may encounter. Once a reserve becomes full time, we have an issue with them leaving for other agencies. We have expended a significant amount of money to train our reserves only to have them recruited or vacate on their own to a larger agency such as the Sheriff's Department where pay and benefits may be greater."

To that end, many agencies in Florida require recruits to sign an employment contract, which includes a provision that if they voluntarily leave employment prior to a set time-frame, they are obligated to pay back the costs and expenses of training. The City of Sanford sued for repayment and won in an effort to stop the employment merry-go-round.

"We estimate that at my agency, a relatively small city, the pre-employment and initial training costs us approximately $1,300 per officer," Morse says. "That does not include uniforms and equipment. Our reserves do not do off-duty assignments, as those are saved as a benefit and opportunity for extra income for our full-timers. However, we all participate in special events. All of our reserves have full arrest power and are armed."

Working with Regulars

Even if adequately trained, a reserve officer's relative lack of exposure to fellow officers may render him or her vulnerable to being mistaken for suspects.

Reserve Constable Nehemiah Pickens, 33, of Harris County, Texas, was shot and killed in 2005 while apparently attempting to assist uniformed officers in apprehending an armed suspect. Pickens, clad in blue jeans and a dark shirt, was seen running with a gun drawn when he was shot and killed by law enforcement personnel.

Then there are in-house concerns. Regular cops may look askance at the reserves next to them, figuring that since they aren't out there every day they might not have a feel for the job, the beat, the players, and tactics.

None of this goes unnoticed by the reserves themselves.

"I find competent reserves are generally accepted and, frankly, welcomed. As the budget, cars, and OT have been cut, I've come in a bunch of times and had my partners and supervisors say, 'Thank God you're here, we're getting slammed out there,'" Wagner says. "Some people will always be skeptical of reserves. I think the reasons vary, but I try not to take it personally. They're working five shifts a week to my two and others reserves' fewer, and we don't face the same internal politics and pressures they do. So I don't begin to compare what I do to what they do and I'm just honored to be accepted among them."

Reserves are typically volunteers (though some agencies pay their reserves more than a token wage), so their dedication and proficiency can vary. Academy training, field training, continuing education, and disciplinary standards may be relaxed, and of course it's hard to compel volunteers to work more than they want to. This can pose liability and reputation risks for agencies and exacerbate issues of acceptance among more dedicated reserves.

"I think reserves, being at work less, have that much more of an obligation to be up on their tactics, officer safety, the law, and policy," says Wagner. "I think we're often expected to be weaker in those areas and it makes a big impression when we're competent. I make mistakes, but try not to twice. We may wear the same badge and uniform and face the same risks, but I don't think that means we're entitled to the trust of partners, whose lives will at times depend upon us. I think reserves have to earn regulars' trust by visibly aspiring to keep themselves at their level of proficiency as much as possible."

Out of Pocket

The lack of financial subsidy, too, can be a concern.

"Between equipment, uniforms, dry cleaning, tools, weapons, gas, and everything else I'd say I spend about $5,000 to $7,000 per year on patrol," notes Wagner. "It adds up pretty quickly, which can be a problem for some reserves who make less in their day jobs than full-time deputies do."

Dr. Bernard "Bud" Levin, a reserve major at the Waynesboro (Va.) Police Department, feels Wagner's pain.

"There is no pay, just $300 per year, taxable, to compensate for expenses," Levin notes, adding that some find themselves defraying such costs by jumping in with both feet. "The regulars are really good to us. Of the reserves we do lose it's often because they've been hired full-time, either at my department or another such as a sheriff's office or the state."

Wagner and Lalezary are just two of 800-plus reserves currently working for Los Angeles County. Cumulatively, these reserves donated 210,000 hours of service to the department in 2012 which, at a presumed rate of $30 per hour (half the salary paid to a full-time deputy), equates to a value of $6.3 million in time donated.

The LASD, LAPD (with about 900 reserves), and other Southern California agencies count an estimated average of 10 percent of their full-time forces in reserves. As impressive as such numbers are, they are dwarfed by the NYPD's Auxiliary Police Force. With 4,500 auxiliaries, NYPD garners an exponentially greater number of volunteer hours: more than a million a year.

Some agencies are implementing or expanding reserve programs with an eye toward recruiting future hires. The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police recently launched a reserve program. Other cities—including cash-strapped Detroit—have gone so far as making reserve duty a prerequisite toward hire.

"This gives me an additional pool of people I can tap," former Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee told the Detroit News. "There were about 1,400 people who expressed interest in becoming a Detroit police officer last year. By having them join the reserves, we can do some moderate screening of them to see if they're fit for Detroit police service, and give them an opportunity to be part of our organization."

About 200 years ago, Sir Robert Peel of the London Metropolitan Police famously said, "The Police are the Public and the Public are the Police." Through reserve programs, agencies can get closer to this model at a low cost and improve productivity, provided they have the legal/policy framework and internal discipline/resources to manage them.

Oh, and that dollar a year salary that Wagner enjoys?

That's before taxes.


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