We need volunteer police officers – & an overhaul as well

The tragic, utterly avoidable death of Eric Harris, shot and killed by Robert Bates, a volunteer police reservist in Tulsa, Oklahoma, has lead not only to grief and protests, but also to some people, including police professionals, saying the involvement of volunteer police officers needs to end.

I am not one of those people.

I’ve been reading all that I can about this tragedy, and there were so many red flags before this shooting, about not only the shooter, but the agency’s involvement of volunteers overall:

  • it’s doubtful the volunteer had received proper training and certification to perform the law-enforcement duties he was allowed to perform
  • it’s doubtful the volunteer had receive proper training regarding the carrying and use of firearms on the job
  • it seems the reservist was, essentially, paying to volunteer alongside career police officers – he donated tens of thousands of dollars in cars, SUVs and equipment to the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office over the past 10 years
  • there’s no evidence that this volunteer was properly supervised or screened regarding the roles he was undertaking on the police force
  • this volunteer was involved in a violent crimes and narcotics task force, not as an observer, but as an arresting officer, and was equipped with a firearm – it cannot be shown that his involvement in these activities, and that his carrying a firearm, was necessary at all

We would never tolerate a career police officer lacking that kind of screening, training and support – we should not tolerate it of a volunteer.

And then there is the reason that some law enforcement agencies involve volunteers; note this excerpt from an article from CNN:

Why do law enforcement agencies have volunteers?
Money, money, money.

Strapped police departments are increasingly looking to do more with fewer resources, and volunteer programs can help plug holes in their operating budgets, says the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which runs the Volunteers in Police Service program

Of course, that statement makes me INSANE, because that is NOT the primary reason why an agency should be involving volunteers! This kind of mentality is what pushing the dollar value of volunteer hours by the Independent Sector, the Corporation National Service, and others is causing: the myth that volunteers are free, and that the best reason to involve volunteers is because they save money.

Why involve volunteer police officers? Here are FAR better reasons than “money, money, money”:

  • The motto of so many police forces is “to protect and serve.” Volunteers can be representatives of that community the police serve. Volunteer involvement can be an excellent way to connect more deeply with community members, by having them see local police work first hand and, to a degree, participating in such. Volunteer involvement allows members of the community to come into a police agency, as volunteers (and, therefore, with no financial stake in the agency), to see for themselves the work that agency does. Involving volunteers — representatives of the community — can help educate the community about what the police do, even changing negative perceptions.
  • Community engagement is community ownership. Volunteer involvement demonstrates that the community is invested in the police and its goals, that they feel a part of those goals. They are more likely to be supportive of the police if they feel ownership of such.
  • Involving volunteers can help your organization reach particular demographic groups — people of a particular age, in a particular neighborhood, of a particular economic level, etc., especially groups who might not be involved with your organization otherwise. How does diversity among your volunteer ranks reflect the diversity of your community?

Police, what demographics are represented among your volunteers, and how does this show community involvement at your agency? What feedback have volunteers provided that has affected your organization, such as improving your services? What do volunteers say about your organization’s performance? How have volunteers helped you build bridges with communities in ways that your career folks could not? If you cannot answer these questions, you are NOT involving volunteers for the right reasons!

Should police be involved in pursuing suspects, investigation of violent crimes, SWAT teams, narcotics task force, and other high-risk activities? Sure – BUT ONLY IF THEY HAVE REGULAR, UP-TO-DATE TRAINING AND PROPER SUPERVISION. This clearly was NOT the case in Tulsa.

Lower-risk-and-still-meaningful ways to involve police volunteers – many of them NOT requiring the officer to carry a firearm:

  • policing community events such as fairs and charitable events
  • staffing DUI checkpoints
  • missing persons investigations
  • neighborhood patrol
  • sex-offender management
  • traffic control
  • helping to staff court proceedings
  • serving low-risk warrants/supporting warrant compliance
  • filling low-risk roles in jails (such as administrative)
  • helping after disasters
  • helping crime victims/victim services
  • leading community events such as bicycle events that promote safety and bike registration
  • chaplaincy
  • code enforcement
  • crime prevention programs
  • translation
  • equipment maintenance

But even in these lower-risk ways, even if volunteer police will not be carrying a firearm, volunteer police still need regular, up-to-date training and proper supervision! THAT REQUIREMENT NEVER CHANGES. They need to be trained even if their role is only to observe and report.

Volunteer police reservists can be an excellent way to connect more deeply with community members, and MORE police departments need to be doing it, not less, particularly in areas where there is friction between the police and those served. But clearly, many police departments need a radical overhaul of their volunteer engagement, particularly regarding volunteers’ training, record-keeping about their training, roles they are given and supervision they are provided. Getting rid of volunteer police has the potential to create even wider cultural gaps between police and the communities they are supposed to serve.

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