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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


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.

Comments (16)

Displaying 1 - 16 of 16

Howard Ekerling @ 3/11/2014 8:55 PM

Just one mistake....LAPD has 427 reserves, not 900. I am proud to be one of them.

Pete @ 3/12/2014 1:22 AM

Weird. I've heard the 800-900 figure before. This article from NPR says "over 700". Anyhow, great work and thank you!

mtarte @ 3/12/2014 2:42 PM

Reserve officers rock! Good article Dean.

Bud Kline @ 3/16/2014 5:33 AM

I am a reserve deputy sheriff with the St Tammany Parish Sheriff's Office. I am POST certified and had to complete the same FTO program as the full timers. I am assigned to the traffic division and have my own assigned patrol unit. I am also on the office's bike team and the Sherrif paid for my training as an IPMBA bike mechanic.

J.T. Kozz @ 3/23/2014 7:46 PM

Very well written article...I have Retired from LE as a Reserve Sergeant back in 2010....still wanted to be involved with LE, I started a Reserve Game Warden program with our state & put two things I love the most into this program the love for the outdoors & Law Enforcement for our state.

Joe McDonald @ 3/25/2014 5:34 PM

I was a Reserve Officer in CA for over 15 years and ended my volunteer police duties in Narcotics and a part of the Hazard Entry Arrest Team. After leaving the Corps I could never afford the cut in pay to be a cop but enjoyed it beyond words. Everyone who serves the public deserves more that what they get in pay and recognition - but that's not what makes us tick. Great article - God Bless and Be Safe.

S. Enders @ 3/25/2014 6:07 PM

thanks for a great article

Mark Kirwan @ 3/26/2014 6:59 AM

A great article, thanks to the author. I am from Ireland. I moved to the US and all I wanted to do was join law enforcement. I was on a visa and later a green card, but I needed citizenship to join the local municipality. Eventually after many years I got my citizenship but my career had taken off, and I like so many others couldn't afford to take the pay cut and join as an entry level officer. I did instead join the reserves in DC after 9/11. I am so happy. I have worked my way up from a patrol officer to now work in special operations. We have a strong police reserve program with armed and unarmed officers. It is a great honor to follow the many Irish who have come before me and served as law enforcement and fire fighters for this great country. I work with a fantastic group of fellow reserves from all walks of life. They are true brothers in blue who are professional and eager to protect and serve the nations capital. Thank you for the recognition. Stay safe my fellow reserves. MK

EW @ 3/26/2014 11:15 AM

Very nice article! One error! Only designated level one reserves have 24 hour peace powers. Not level 1.

Andrew @ 3/26/2014 4:53 PM

EW is right--in California you legally/per POST have to be a "Level 1 Designated" reserve to have 24/7 status. This means you have to have completed the academy in the last 15 or so years and completed the Field Training Program. A bit of a nuance for a general audience, but technically correct and relevant for a reserve one.

Learoy Hamm @ 5/9/2014 8:16 PM

My opinion I do think is due time USA as a country make & made it mandatory.Therefore permanent full time employment for Police reserve officer.Include salary benefits etc,all they need is some extra training in some and sensitive extent circumstances & situation.I'm also agreed that they must below comparison to full fledge Police Officer in few aspect and respect.Such as salary,benefits & position but however,everyone life out there are important hence should be seen equal.Typical example many Police Officer don't rate or like Reserve yet,when trouble arises especial cases for eg, shooting officer hit & or down partially all unit they expect (reserve or otherwise respond at scene).A lot of reserve officer is very effective sound judgement & firm when executing their duties according to laws,rules & regulation.I am & will be such one in care Highland Park Police Academy,MI.Started (02.01.2014 and 06.01.2014) graduation set date.Thank You.

Oscar @ 6/18/2014 3:34 PM

Does a reserve officer have the authority to sign off my corectable "fix-it" ticket?

Charles Frank @ 7/5/2014 12:31 PM

Yep, gotta be a bit " nuts". I'm in the process of finishing what I started 35 or so years ago. Started at Washoe County in Reno, had to bow out, life got in the way, and now I'm back waiting on the next reserve acadamy to start in Lancaster SC. Working as a " citizen on patrol" untill class starts, learning what has changed, and what has not. Legal stuff....a lot. People.. not so much. equipment?? oh my!!!!! Don't have to carry that 12 lb Maglite, or the old " brick" Motorola. Trying to give back as much as I can.
Thanks to all who volunteer to protect and serve.

Connie @ 9/26/2014 10:06 PM

How does the reservist and the department handle injuries? Is the reservist eligible for workman's compensation? Disability? Any type of on the job insurance? Thanks!

Larry Romero @ 1/16/2015 7:23 AM

Iam a reserve police officer with Santa Clara Police Department in Calif. for over 40 years. The training and friendship I would not trade for anything. Thank you very much for the article.

antonio @ 2/22/2015 12:26 AM

The NYPD auxiliary is not really a law enforcement agency they are civil defence, absolutely no enforcement authority whatsoever. The uniforms may say NYPD nut the reality is they are just regular civilians.

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