Too Often, Some Say, Volunteer Officers Just Want To Play Cop The fatal shooting of a suspect by a volunteer deputy in Tulsa, Okla., raises the question that some have already been asking: Why are nonprofessionals allowed to wear badges and carry guns?


Too Often, Some Say, Volunteer Officers Just Want To Play Cop

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In Tulsa County, Okla., Robert Bates has pleaded not guilty to manslaughter. He's the 73-year-old volunteer reserve deputy who shot and killed an unarmed black man during a sting operation. Bates says it was an accident - that he meant to use his Taser. The high-profile case has raised concerns about the way law enforcement agencies use volunteers who often have badges and guns. Here's NPR's Martin Kaste.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Bob Ball is a real estate investor in Portland, Ore., but that's his day job. For the last 20 years, he's also been a volunteer cop.

BOB BALL: When I was new, it was the best time of my life. I got to go out there and wear a white hat and help people and make a difference in my community kind of one little piece at a time.

KASTE: And this is real police work. On one occasion, Ball had to pull his gun on a guy who was threatening a woman with a knife.

BALL: He ended up dropping the knife and I didn't shoot. And when they were asking me how come you didn't shoot - time sort of slows down a little bit, too, when you get adrenaline. And in my case, I saw his eyes get afraid.

KASTE: Not shooting that guy earned Ball a medal for valor. But police reserve programs vary a lot. Some departments restrict their duties to things like handling crowds, while others let the reservist go on patrol and make arrests. Volunteer police are a long-standing tradition in America. Think of the Old West sheriffs, swearing in a posse. And some police professionals say it's a tradition that deserves to end.

RAY JOHNSON: Law enforcement is one of the few professions that allows people to play at the profession.

KASTE: Ray Johnson is the police chief in Chesterfield, Mo. It's a suburb of St. Louis. Police reservists have always made him nervous. He recalls a program in another town where he worked early in his career.

JOHNSON: They were just loose cannons. They were not properly supervised. They were not properly trained. We had reserve officers who were business people in the community, but they would come in on a Saturday - two of them - and take a car and go out and patrol the streets.

KASTE: So when Johnson was hired to run his own department in Chesterfield, he made it a priority to get rid of the reservists. There was political pressure to keep the program, so he did it in stages - slowly restricting the volunteers' police powers. He says he doesn't think all police reservists are loose cannons - quite the contrary. He says many are serious and dedicated.

JOHNSON: Because they're doing it as an avocation. They have all the enthusiasm for that as other people do for some other hobby, but it is a hobby.

KASTE: And when you're volunteering just 20 hours a month, he says you don't develop the practical experience you need as a cop. Also you're training tends to fade. How often that ends up getting someone hurt or killed, we just don't know. There are no good national statistics on reservists using force. Johnson says he thinks the reservists are being reined in more these days, especially in metro areas like St. Louis. He has a side-line as a reviewer of police departments for the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies. And he says the reserve programs now seem to be more common in small towns.

JOHNSON: Too often we find in small rural departments, especially, that someone on the council has friends that may be prominent, you know, people in the community that want to play cop.

KASTE: The bigger departments that still use reservists have either restricted their powers or they've gone for more training. That's what they did in Portland. Officer John Shadron is the coordinator of the program there.

JOHN SHADRON: We looked at it years ago - the same way people are looking at it now - and tried to get ahead of it. So now you get the exact same yearly training that full-time officers do.

KASTE: But why put so much effort into training volunteers? Shadron says with a tight police budget, Portland just plain needs them.

SHADRON: Population's growing and we just had less people out on the streets. So having a reserve officer - right now we're doing - just about every day we've got at least three or four cars who are doubled up because you'll have one full-time paid officer who will be riding with a reserve officer.

KASTE: More than anything, it's money - or a lack thereof - that keeps the American tradition of volunteer police alive. Martin Kaste, NPR News.

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