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Riding Shotgun

As we entered into the current recession, all across the nation we heard of plans being developed by local and county agencies to lay off law enforcement officers as a last resort, if all else failed and no other means of budget reductions could be found. Sadly for some officers, the actual lay offs have begun in some agencies and no one knows for sure when it will end. To make matters worse, some labor agreements call for stopping the use of reserve officers if full time police officer are laid off, adding a potential double hit to the reduction in officers on the streets. As if all that wasn't bad enough, in the state of California for example, budget cuts have been mandated to the Department of Corrections and unless other ways can be found to reduce their budget, prisoners will be released back into the population creating what many have called a perfect storm: less police officers and more criminals on the street at the same time. Adding to all of the above, this is happening at a time when we hear more and more tragic stories of not just one officer being killed at a time but multiple officers by well armed suspects whose fire power initially out guns the street officers until additional officers and/or the SWAT team can arrive.

For agencies that have been forced to lay off officers, what may be even more troubling is the fact it could be many years before their budgets will allow them to fill these now vacant positions. Many city budgets are dependent on the tax revenue from property values which have declined by over 50% in some cases thus cutting the cities budget dramatically. As we all know, the process of hiring new officers, training them, FTO time, etc. can add another 18 to 24 months to the process, leaving some agencies looking at perhaps five years before they start to either rehire those laid off or place new officers on the streets. With the recent reductions in the number of officers on the streets and surge in violence against officers with no immediate end in sight anytime soon, law enforcement executives and state POST commissions may need to start considering new and innovative ways to help put more officers on the streets with less funds to do so.

Will riding shotgun make a comeback?

As stated in an article several years ago, the term riding shotgun came from the old cowboy days when stagecoaches crossed the wide open territories, loaded with valuable cargo, cash, and other attractive items for thieves. To help protect the load, a second person would ride up top with the driver openly carrying, as the name implies, a shotgun. The reason was quite simple and obvious: to help deter thieves from attempting to rob the stagecoach, and if they did, to provide additional back up for the driver. Thus the term used today when someone is told to sit in the passenger seat, you ride shotgun.

One proven method worth considering that is already in place and would only require a small amount of changes in state regulations is the use of Level II reserve officers. In this case, they would now be full time paid Level II peace officers, perhaps called Assistant Officers, or AOs.

In this scenario the level II officers primary mission would be in affect to ride shotgun and assist the fully trained lead officer with their duties while providing the all important back up. For those familiar with well regarded reserve programs such as California's, this position would basically be a full time officer trained to a level two reserve officers standards which in California requires 333 hours of class instruction versus 727 hours for a full time sworn police officer. As in the case of California's reserve officer program, a level II officer may perform general law enforcement assignments while under the immediate supervision of a peace officer who has completed the Regular Basic Course, (a fully commissioned police officer). These officers may also work assignments authorized for Level III reserve officers such as prisoner transport and support duties that most likely will not result in an arrest, without immediate supervision. The idea behind this is not to reduce the number of full time officers on the streets but to help keep the officers we have on the streets safer and be able to respond to calls as a two manned unit knowing both officers have been trained to the same level as it relates to officer safety, i.e., firearms and arrest tactics but not necessarily trained in traffic laws, accident scene investigations and other areas that a second officer would need to effectively back up the primary officer on scene.

The majority of police departments across the nation operate with one man units which for many of the routine calls for service such as report taking, minor traffic complaints, etc. is adequate, although not ideal. However, when calls for service are potentially violent in nature such as domestic violence calls, assaults in progress, etc., two one-man units would be required at a minimum, and rightfully so: officer safety comes first. The end result of this policy can be lower priority calls get backed up and random patrolling goes away because two one-man units are responding to a calls which require those numbers.

In cases where the purpose of dispatching two one-man units is due to an officer safety concern, a unit with a traditional police officer and the second being a new class of AO, Assistant Officer, lower priority calls that require a fully trained officer can still be handled because the dispatched unit has two qualified officers onboard. Even if this new level of police officers were to be created, all calls for service would still be dispatched with at least one fully trained officer as required by state POST commissions which would also insure city managers would not try to replace new full time officers with AOs.

Another potential consideration of this newer class of officer would be to open up the field of law enforcement to those who may be fully qualified yet struggle with the written test. Keeping in mind the AO, assistant officer, position would restrict them from responding to calls for service on their own or being the primary officer on scene, perhaps the written test for the AO could be modified to a lesser degree or a person scoring 10 to 20 points lower out of 100, less than the normal cut off, would qualify for this entry level position. Otherwise, all other test and qualifications should be the same and if an AO would like to promote to a fully trained officer status, they would be required to pass the standard officer test and complete the remaining basic academy training class.

In the state of California for example, this would mean completing the final Module One of the three part modular training course used for reserve officer training. I personally know several young men who joined the Marines at a young age wanting to serve their nation, thus forgoing further formal educational opportunities and later tried to become police officer at the end of their enlistment period but failed the written test and ended up reenlisting for another tour of duty. While this is great news for the Marines, it’s sad to see their life's dream of becoming a police officer shattered because they didn't have the time to increase their level of education to pass the written test because they were to busy protecting our country. A program like the AO would be a perfect opportunity for these very brave and loyal young men and women to join the ranks of law enforcement to continuing serving their nation on a local level.

Of course with lesser duties and training comes lesser pay for the AO. However, for many Americans who are out of work today or lack a strong educational background, a rewarding full time job with retirement and health benefits at a pay level 30 to 40 percent less than a full time officer is still a good career job. Consider this, starting pay for the Los Angeles Police Department for a person with only a high school diploma is $59,000. With an AO program paying at 70% of a fully trained officer, this position would still pay $41,300; still high enough to attract quality individuals whose career options may be limited do to any number of circumstances. For agencies that have been forced to lay off officers, this program would potentially add 1.5 to 2 new officers for every one fully trained officer when budget levels begin to rise. Of course there should be mandated contract clauses to ensure the agency returns to it's previous staffing levels of fully trained officers and those laid off get first right of refusal for new openings so cities don’t use this to try to replace fully trained officers with all AOs once previous levels of funding are in place.

For those whose initial reaction is to say, Wait a second, that's creating a second tier of officers, I offer this: in most states this already exists with the reserve officer program. The difference is the reserve officer is not a full time employee, does not receive retirement and other benefits and may or may not be paid but otherwise is already performing this exact job function. This is nothing new. What would be new is creating a new full time position based on this level of training for specific purposes.

The bottom line is, when a fully trained police officer is on the ground, trying to handcuff a husband who just hit his wife, which question will they be asking themselves, I wonder if my Assistant Officer will be able to write this report properly and recognize which penal codes have been violated? OR I wonder if my Assistant Officer can back me up now when the wife starts beating me while trying to take my weapon? My guess is most officers will be more concerned with the latter can this person back me up and if the answer is yes, any other questions with regards to their level of academy training, knowledge of the laws and procedures will get settled later once everyone is safe and back at the station.

Drastic times require innovative thinking.

While the idea of putting a new class of officers in patrol vehicles to act as back ups may sound drastic, the fact of the matter is, statistics clearly show that two manned patrol units are less likely to be fired upon from a suspect than one a manned vehicle. Even the harden criminals who vow to go out in a blaze of glory and swear they'll never be taken alive, when all is said in done, see the merits of being tried by twelve versus carried by six. Or they might suddenly realize life behind bars wasn't/isn't that bad after all. Knowing there are two officers behind them during a traffic stop does give pause to their own fate. For those who do choose to end it all in a blaze of glory, no one can argue that two equally trained and qualified shooters are better than one-on-one; it's just simple math.

While this policy would be sure to stir up controversy amongst labor leaders and the rank and file officers on the street, one thing to keep in mind is the fact that life as we know it has changed. Regardless of whom you blame for our nation's current economic troubles, agency budgets have been and may continue to be dramatically cut with the end result being more officers put at risk. In an ideal world, we'd have enough officers patrolling our cities to provide immediate response to all calls for service, regardless of the level of priority, but that's just not the case. Drastic times require innovative thinking to help find ways to insure the safety of our officers with what little funding your agency may have.

Clearly this is not for every agency and realistically speaking a program like this may never happen. But for agencies whose staffing shortages are causing a clear and present danger to their officer's safety with no resolution in sight, you may want to consider looking back to western history for a simple, yet effective measure to help protect your most precious assets by adding shotgun riders to your force.