In light of the recent tragic deaths of three civilian police volunteers, there has been a fair amount of discussion throughout the law enforcement profession regarding whether or not civilian patrol-type volunteers should be used. The three deaths I am referring to involve Mr. Jim Durant of the Scarborough, Maine, Police Department, who on December 14, 2006 was struck and killed by a motorist while assisting with traffic control, and most recently, NYPD Auxiliary Officers Nicholas Pekearo and Eugene Marshalik, who were both gunned down at virtually point blank range by a deranged killer running from approaching armed police officers after he killed another man in a local restaurant.
Ultimately the final decision rests with the law enforcement chief executives who run their agencies to decide whether or not to use unarmed civilian volunteers in a patrol-type capacity to provide extra eyes and ears on the streets, and/or to further assist with additional non-enforcement actions that can free up officers to focus on the enforcement aspect of their jobs.
While it's certainly understandable to see why chiefs of police and sheriffs would express concern over the potential loss of life of a community member acting as a volunteer for their agency, it's critical to make these decisions armed with all the facts versus an emotional decision based on recent events.
The true risk
The fact of the matter is, based on the statistics of one civilian volunteer being killed in the line of duty per year, your volunteers are ten times more likely to be killed in a car accident while driving to your station to volunteer than while actually volunteering on the streets. Hard to believe, but the facts are there. There are approximately 200 million registered drivers in the United States, and 40,000 people are killed each year in traffic-related accidents. That's a one in 5,000 chance you will be killed in a traffic accident versus a one in 100,000 (there are approximately 100,000 civilian patrol volunteers in the U.S.) chance you will be killed performing volunteer duties on the street with law enforcement.
Think about that--more people are killed each and every year in traffic accidents than the total number of people killed on 9/11, plus all our military casualties fighting the war on terrorism, plus all the police officers killed in the line of duty since the numbers were first recorded, plus all of the nation's over 15,000 citizens murdered in any given year. Add all of those together and they still do not equal the total number of citizens killed each and every year in traffic accidents.
Fact is, several years ago two search and rescue volunteers with the San Bernardino County (California) Sheriff's Department were killed while in route to a call-out for missing hikers in the mountains, when the driver of another vehicle came into their lane and hit them head-on. In 2004, a detective from the North Miami Beach (Florida) Police Department was killed while driving back to the station after an investigation, when another vehicle hit his unmarked vehicle. And not surprising, half of the 157 police officers killed in the line of duty in 2006 were killed in traffic related accidents.
What does all of this mean? Just that life can be dangerous and accidents happen. One could make an argument, "but we have to drive our cars to get to work and school, etc. but we don't have to have volunteers on the streets in a patrol function." And herein lies the question: do or don't we need citizen involvement to get the job done, to prevent crime and help catch those who commit it?
Blame it on Sir Robert Peel
One of the first questions that needs to be asked is: what role does, or perhaps better put, should the general public have in helping to police their communities? Is volunteering to work in a police agency an appropriate activity for private citizens? To answer that question one needs to look no further than the words of Sir Robert Peel, the founder of modern policing, "...the people are the police and the police are the people, it is incumbent for all citizens to take action to protect their communities yet only a few have chosen a full time calling to do so."