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How to Run a Reserve Program

Taking on volunteer officers reaps great benefits when it’s done right.

December 01, 2004  |  by Scott Fielden

Like many individuals holding down full-time jobs, I desire to give something back to society, something a little more meaningful than dropping some loose change into a Salvation Army kettle during the holidays. So I became a reserve officer with my local sheriff’s department.

To some people my choice of community service may sound unique—even borderline crazy—but in reality the number of reserve officers is increasing throughout the country as more law enforcement organizations utilize this cost-effective means to add manpower. At present, there are approximately 400,000 sworn law enforcement reserve officers (both volunteer and paid) in the U.S., according to the National Reserve Law Officers Association.

And when it comes to expenses, agencies teetering on the edge of a budget shortfall will find there’s not a better value around, as reserve officer Christopher Shields of the Columbia (Miss.) Police Department points out. “I wear the same uniform, write the same tickets, drive the same Interceptor, chase the same criminals, and put my life on the line same as the full-time officers. The only difference is that I get to make my own hours and I don’t draw a paycheck. It’s all volunteer service.”

Growth of reserve programs exploded in the 1990s, thanks to federal grants that covered the costs of outfitting and training volunteers. Although grant funding is somewhat tighter today, many departments continue to add reserves in recognition of the value they bring to their agencies, even when costs have to be absorbed in-house. And while there is no one-size-fits-all approach to building a successful reserve unit, there are some key areas that, if managed properly, can maximize the success of a reserve division.

Recruitment

As with any organization, a reserve unit is only as good as the people on its roster, and this all begins with recruitment. Determining the motivations applicants have for getting involved in a dangerous occupation for little or no compensation is crucial. Individuals should have a thorough understanding of both the commitment that will be required of them and the scope of their law enforcement duties, which may vary by department. They should also be comfortable with the responsibilities and liabilities of working in the law enforcement arena.

Departmental personnel with experience in hiring career officers should have a hand in the selection of reserve officers. This isn’t an area to be taken lightly, as the success or failure of the program is often linked to the staffing process.

Given the importance of recruitment, the same screening methods utilized for full-time officers should be used for selecting reserves. This helps ensure quality candidates are chosen, and may even reduce departmental liability in the long run by culling out those who shouldn’t have their fingers anywhere near a badge and gun.

Finding individuals willing to serve generally isn’t difficult, especially if the uniforms and equipment are furnished (in cases where reserves will be working without compensation, this should be a given). However, just because someone is willing to protect and serve doesn’t mean he or she should be protecting and serving.

“Extensive background checks are just as important for reserve officers as they are for full-time officers, since reserves may be working in a sensitive area, such as narcotics arrests,” explains Lt. Bryan Horton of the Washington County (Tenn.) Sheriff’s Department. “And if the background check is uniform for both, then the department will save money and manpower hours if the reserve officer is hired full time.”

When a business interviews potential employees, the hiring manager considers what personal skills and experiences a candidate brings to the table, and whether or not his or her background will add value to the organization. The same thought process can be useful when conducting reserve interviews.

Besides providing additional manpower, do the candidates possess any attributes that would benefit the department in the long run? For instance, in high immigrant areas, do any candidates speak a second language? Do they have former military or law enforcement experience? How about medical training or pilot certification? Do they wear size 22 EEE shoes, stand over 7 feet tall, and have three NBA championship rings? (OK, although Shaquille O’Neal has been a reserve deputy sheriff with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, not every law enforcement agency is going to land a person with his “credentials”).

The reserve division at my agency represents a mixing bowl of occupations: former full-time officers, retired military personnel, college students majoring in criminal justice, teachers, doctors, EMS personnel, and various business and trade professionals. A unit with such a diverse background can offer a wide variety of skills and community contacts to its department.

Training

In most cases, the public doesn’t make a differentiation between a reserve and full-time officer, especially when uniforms are identical. If a reserve officer doesn’t have adequate training, it will reflect on the entire department. By requiring reserves to meet the minimum training requirements of career officers, agencies can reduce the public relations pitfalls and financial liabilities associated with poor reserve training. At the same time, good training enables reserve officers to be more proficient in their duties.

Ideally, each reserve officer should be assigned to a field training officer for patrol training and be required to complete the field training program just like any other officer, especially if receiving condensed in-house training instead of attending an accredited academy. Because many reserves won’t be able to pursue formal academy training or P.O.S.T certification due to their full-time job commitments, completing an FTO program can be a crucial step for them in learning the fundamentals of law enforcement and departmental policy.

“Reserves have the same law enforcement powers as our full-time officers,” states Field Training Officer Jerry Bennett of the Washington County Sheriff’s Department. “So like full-timers, they need to go through an FTO program. It may not be as lengthy or as extensive as the standard program, but when a reserve is sitting in my patrol car, he’s my partner. Each reserve is an officer just as I am, and they need to be trained as such. There’s a lot of liability on patrol these days, and since they’re held responsible—right or wrong—just like us, they need the benefits of training just like full-time officers.”

The requirement of completing an FTO program has another distinct advantage. It allows an agency to determine in a relatively short time which reserves will be assets to the department, and if there are any who would be better suited to pursue volunteer activities outside of law enforcement.

Support

The success or failure of a reserve program will hinge on officer acceptance, and this begins with the agency’s sheriff or chief of police and filters down through the rank and file. If full-time officers support and encourage their reserve counterparts, everyone wins. If an attitude of indifference or rejection is present among full-timers, reserves will drift out of the organization, causing the financial and personnel resources allocated to a reserve program to be wasted.

After training, let reserves continue to learn while they perform. Allow them to work the calls, become proficient on the radio, do the reports, and gain the experience of being the primary contact officer with the public. In short, let them do what officers do every day. Most reserves want to roll up their sleeves and take on additional responsibility—that’s why they volunteered in the first place.

Because their time in uniform is relatively limited, it’s important for reserves to “get some reps” while they work in order to further their skills. If they are relegated to being merely an extra set of eyes and ears in the passenger seat during patrol (a “ride-along” program), most won’t stick around long enough to break in their leather gear. If they simply wanted to be observers, they could stay at home in the comfort of their den and watch “COPS,” without putting their health at risk.

If a department is going to dedicate the time and expense of establishing a reserve division, some consideration should be given to how they’ll keep the volunteers once they’re on roster. Motivating reserves is a little different than motivating career officers since financial compensation is often not part of the equation. So, if reserve officers aren’t paid, how do you keep them in uniform and productive?

For starters, offer additional training opportunities and certification to those who want to expand their skills. Provide acknowledgment for significant achievements with service awards or performance recognition. The simple act of recognizing reserve officers’ contributions and giving them the opportunity to advance their training is an inexpensive way to make sure the reserve program doesn’t experience the “2/50” syndrome—losing 50 percent of the reserves within two years due to member apathy or program weaknesses.

“It’s up to the department and the full-time officers to keep the reserve officer morale high,” says Washington County’s Horton. “Really, the keys to having a professional reserve program are simple. Get motivated people who have high self-esteem, train them properly, and then treat them with respect since they are volunteering their time. And in the end, there should be no distinction between a full-time officer and reserve officer with the exception of pay and benefits.”

A growing number of agencies are addressing the motivation and productivity challenges by implementing a “Level 1-2-3” program. In this stepped approach, each level represents an increase in tenure and experience. Once a reserve officer obtains a specific number of training and patrol hours, he advances a level and is given expanded responsibilities or higher rank (corporal, sergeant, lieutenant, senior reserve officer, master reserve patrol officer, etc.). Following this approach, new reserves aren’t given assignments that would put them in over their heads, and veteran reserves are rewarded for their time and experience.

Organization

Many reserve organizations exist as separate operating divisions within a department. Their command structure mirrors the departmental organizational structure, complete with platoons and commanding officers. For example, the reserve unit with my agency has four platoons, each led by a sergeant and lieutenant, who, in turn, report to a reserve captain and major.

The advantage of this system is that it fosters a greater sense of responsibility within the reserve division while reducing the allocation of time and management resources by the department. But there can be a downside to this approach. If a reserve unit isn’t manned by individuals capable of running the program in sync with the standards and objectives of the agency, the overall performance of the unit will be unsatisfactory. As mentioned before, carefully recruiting reserve officers can prevent this from happening.

Regardless of how they are organized, newly established reserve programs need to allow ample time for a comfort zone to develop between the full-time and reserve personnel. This “getting-to-know-you” stage can be shortened if the departmental chain of command is openly supportive of the union and both groups are fully aware of the expectations and responsibilities of their counterparts.

Invariably, there will be a few individuals who feel it’s up to the reserves to “prove themselves” before being completely accepted by the full-time family. Given the proper training and opportunity, most reserve officers are more than willing, even anxious, to step up to the plate and take a swing when it’s time for them to do what is necessary to protect and serve.

After all, that’s the reason they became reserve officers.

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