When Good Cops Go to War

About a third of the sworn officers in Athens, Ohio, are either probationary employees, still riding with a field training officer, on extended leave or reactivated military. It's enough to keep Police Chief Rick Mayer awake at night.


About a third of the sworn officers in Athens, Ohio, are either probationary employees, still riding with a field training officer, on extended leave or reactivated military. It's enough to keep Police Chief Rick Mayer awake at night.

"It is very stressful," Mayer admits.

Athens, a college town in southeastern Ohio located about an hour away from the capital of Columbus, could use more police officers. And the town's governing board realized this because Mayer will receive two additional slots in the next budget, bringing the total number of sworn officers to 28.

While authorizing two additional bodies in uniform looks good on paper, filling those positions and keeping them filled with experienced officers isn't such an easy task. For, as long as the U.S. Armed Forces keeps activating reservists, departments that employ them, like Mayer's, will be strained to the breaking point.

Loss of officers to active duty military impacts law enforcement agencies both in delivery of services and budgets. How are agencies responding to the intersection of growing responsibilities with dwindling manpower? The answers are as hard to come by as qualified officer candidates.

The USERRA effect

When the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA) was signed into law, the moving force behind it was protecting the best interests of those called up to defend this country. Ironically, over time it transformed from benevolent legislation designed to strengthen the military and preserve the jobs of workers ordered to active duty, to an expensive liability for employers — particularly in the fields of emergency response.

USERRA guarantees military call-ups won't come at too great a personal expense to the employee. It's meant to protect the employee's rights, while simultaneously allow the military to replenish its supply of troops. USERRA mandates employers maintain the service member's job and benefits while he or she is serving in the military. It also prohibits hiring discrimination against applicants who also serve as reservists and protects those with disabilities.

No one argues that USERRA isn't needed. National defense, especially in the post 9/11 climate, trumps all other considerations. And, without a pool of reservists willing to serve when called up, the military could find itself with enormous problems.

Even though USERRA protects the country's ability to maintain its armed forces at a level consistent with need, it ironically makes its partners in national defense and the War on Terror more vulnerable by taking skilled and critically important law enforcement officers away from their civilian jobs.

While the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan remain heated, and other parts of the world such as North Korea and Iran begin to boil with dark potential, local and state law enforcement agencies scurry to keep their ranks supplied.

It's not easy being blue

Almost every law enforcement agency in the United States has been affected by USERRA. The law's impact, however, depends on the size of the agency and how many officers are diverted to the military.

Part of the problem stems from traditional close ties between the military and law enforcement. For years, agencies have targeted the U.S. Armed Forces as prime hunting grounds for new recruits. It makes perfect sense; the military ingrains an understanding of chain of command, the ability to respond to dangerous situations both instantaneously and instinctively, and a knowledge of weapons and their use.

Former military have a high success rate in law enforcement careers for all the reasons mentioned above. Additionally, they possess the right mindset — an appreciation of physical readiness and courage. Since they are predisposed to work well within a criminal justice structure, they often enjoy long and fruitful post-military careers as sworn officers.

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