Putting on a police uniform automatically lends people an air of authority. Handing them a badge and a gun gives them real power. In some places around the country, individuals have been given all the trappings of police officers, but with none of the training and very little oversight. That can be a serious problem.
It has been in Michigan. A Detroit Free Press investigation found that at least 3,000 reserve or volunteer officers serve in Michigan with no formal system of oversight in place. The legislature called on the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards to adopt screening and training requirements, but it has yet to do so. Individual departments may set their own standards, but the newspaper found evidence of abuse by reserve officers, as well as examples of convicted felons and white supremacists serving in uniform. “The active-duty officers have always been troubled by the lack of standards,” says Jim Curran of the Michigan Association of Police Organizations.
Police departments around the country use volunteers to help out. Many assist with relatively low-risk tasks, such as directing traffic or providing a uniformed security presence at parades and sporting events. But there’s always the potential for situations to escalate or turn violent.
Many states set clear requirements that reserve officers must meet. In some cases, they have to have minimum levels of training, regardless of how they’ll be deployed. Other states set training levels according to the type of job they’ll do, with more training required when a reserve officer will ride on patrol, whether with an active-duty officer or solo, than when they’re just guiding traffic. “Michigan has a more liberal policy for their reserves than I generally see,” says W. Craig Hartley Jr., executive director of the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies. “It’s critically important, and responsible, that police officers are only performing functions that they’re trained for.”
That sounds like common sense, but many police departments, strapped for resources, cut corners. Smaller departments often have a need for more people to handle shifts than their budgets will cover. Departments think they’re getting off cheap using free help, but they face real liability issues. Real cops on the beat have to have some understanding of constitutional rights drilled into them, with enough training to offer reassurance that they won’t threaten someone’s life without some sense of the risks and responsibilities involved. “It’s not a cowboy world,” Hartley says. “The training weeds out the people who don’t have the skill set to provide the functions needed. You don’t add water and have a police officer.”
When police departments don’t have the money to meet their staffing needs, they often contract with the county sheriff’s office. That may work out fine, but sheriffs also use volunteer help. In Michigan, there have been scandals involving sheriffs who’ve handed out badges as fundraising incentives. “Putting somebody out there on the street who has very little training is not fair to the community and it’s not fair to the officer,” says Jim Bueermann, president of the Police Foundation, “but it happens all the time.”