The Federal Way Police Department and a city council sub-committee discussed Jan. 13 the pros and cons of employing volunteer police officers.
The discussion provided information only on a reserve officers program, and no action has been taken.
If the program is adopted at a later date, it would have benefits and drawbacks. It could free up staffing time and be an exceptional recruiting tool for full-time officers. The program could save the department money. But it would require careful management and supervision, pose liability risks and require union contract negotiations.
A reserve program would be used during city events that attract large crowds, according to a city council committee staff report written by Police Chief Brian Wilson. The officers may assist full-time officers in transporting prisoners, protecting crime scenes and controlling traffic, according to the report. The program is usually seen in smaller municipalities. None of the Valley Cities agencies employ reserve officers, but cities such as Des Moines do.
The department has a long-standing program that was established in the 1970s. Two volunteer officers aid full-time employees. They work the patrol unit and often take responsibility for booking, fingerprinting, photographing and transporting detainees to jail, said Bob Collins, Des Moines Police Department Professional Standards sergeant. The volunteers also assist in community events.
By utilizing reserve officers to perform these tasks, full-time officers are able to return to their duties on the streets and better protect citizens, Collins said.
“We have more resources to draw from, as far as staffing,” he said.
Though reserves work part-time, they are subject to the same strict hiring guidelines as full-time commissioned officers. They must pass a background check as well as polygraph, psychological and medical examinations. Applicants attend a police academy for reserves and complete field training requirements before they are allowed to perform on their own. In Des Moines, they have most of the same responsibilities as commissioned officers, Collins said.
“Technically, they are almost like a full-time officer,” he said. “They pretty much do everything a full-time officer is expected to do.”
The program is an excellent recruiting tool, Collins said. Of Des Moines’ 40-person staff, 10 of the officers, including Collins and two command staff, first served in the department’s reserve program. Employing the part-time volunteers allows the department to evaluate whether a person will make a good full-time cop, he said.
“You’re dealing with a known quantity,” Collins said. “You’re not guessing at what you’re getting. You know what you’re getting.”
The program also gives those interested in the field a means for gaining experience.
“When I became a reserve (in the 1980s), it was just a stepping stone for us,” Collins said. “It was something to get experience and do the work while I went through the testing process (to be hired full-time).”
But substantial risks accompany the program. Typically, the turnover rate is high, according to Wilson’s report. Liability issues exist as “reserve officers lack the competencies of a full-time police officer,” according to Wilson’s report. A higher risk of criminal and unethical conduct is present, according to his report.
“To manage a police program, a volunteer program, it has to be managed right,” Collins said.
A successful unit requires careful management. Costs accrue for training and supervision of the program. Because reserves usually have other full-time jobs, it can be hard to organize training sessions. Staff time dedicated to background checks of applicants would increase.
Testing costs approximately $1,900 per person, according to Wilson’s report. The police reserve academy costs $400 per person and uniforms and equipment would be added costs of approximately $3,500, according to the report. A total of $5,800 per reserve would be spent on the program. There is no information available as to how many officers Federal Way may utilize if the program is implemented and Wilson preferred not to speak on the subject until it has been discussed further.
“That’s debatable, whether there really is any sort of cost savings or not,” Collins said.
Implementing a reserve program would require negotiations with the police unions. It would directly affect the Federal Way Police Officers’ Guild. Essentially, volunteer officers could be used to perform duties otherwise taken on by full-time commissioned officers.
“The Guild is going to say, ‘wait a minute, you’re taking away jobs from our officers’ and that’s going to be where one of the battles lies (sic),” Collins said.
The program would be beneficial if the reserve officers did not replace commissioned officers for off-duty, overtime or other staffing purposes, said John Clary, Federal Way Police Officers’ Guild president. The best function for reserves is to assist on patrol, he said.
“In my opinion, it’s really the best use of them; you basically get another pair of eyes and help on the call.”
Clary said he realizes the program comes with substantial risks and would need sound structure to operate functionally, but overall, he supports the idea and feels it would be a benefit to current officers.
“It really is a neat program, but it’s the type of program that needs to be fully supported by the city. There’s a lot of liability and training hours,” Clary said. “It’s a pretty big commitment.”