In late December, 2006, we learned of the death of former President Gerald Ford who was spoken of as a great public servant. Sadly, just ten days before Christmas 2006, our nation lost another great individual, one who truly lived up to the title of public servant but one which the majority of Americans will never know of. His name was Mr. Jim Durant, and he was a police volunteer with the Scarborough, Maine, Police Department. On the evening of Thursday, December 14th, while on duty, Mr. Durant was dispatched to the scene of a traffic accident, and under the direction of sworn officers he assisted others with traffic control duties. By all accounts, Mr. Durant had taken all the necessary safety precautions one would, and was wearing his reflective safety vest, was equipped with a proper flashlight, and was trained to perform this function. Sadly though, while performing this task Mr. Durant was struck from behind by a vehicle, and sustained critical injuries. He passed away the following day.
While the reality is you're more likely to be struck by lightning than be killed just because you're a civilian police volunteer, the fact of the matter is, depending on what duties you perform, it can be a dangerous task. Not surprisingly, Mr. Durant lost his life to one of the top reasons for the loss of life for all sworn officers in the United States--traffic related fatalities. Regardless of how many precautions one may take, whenever you place yourself in a position where there are moving vehicles passing by, accidents can and do occur. More information regarding this tragic loss may be found at the memorial page for Mr. Durant at the web link listed at the bottom of this article.
The Reality of Liability.
As in the very tragic case of Mr. Durant, no one can argue that the potential for injuries and/or death can and do exist when volunteers perform certain tasks equal to that of sworn officers. The important point, however, is how are the volunteers trained for these tasks, what policies and procedures are put in place to reduce accidents and injuries, how are they implemented and just as importantly, do the volunteers themselves understand the risk involved with the duties they are to perform?
With the new year upon us, now is a great time for a "liability check up" as it relates to your volunteers. As I discussed in my February, 2006, article, That Nasty L Word, there are three basic types of liability as it relates to volunteers: conceived, perceived and real, the latter being as the name implies, the hard and fast issues that relate to injuries and lawsuits which is what we'll focus on in this article and how to avoid them.
Train as if your life depended upon it.
When all is said and done, the fact of the matter is yes, there is real liability associated with using civilian volunteers in law enforcement, just as there is with sworn full time officers. Think about this for a minute--how is it that a law enforcement agency can hire a young man or woman, as young as 21 years old, perhaps with very little life experience, and put him or her on the street, by himself, with a gun and expect little liability in return? The answer is in addition to the extensive screening and testing before hiring them, they subject them to a well designed and demanding training program, which tests their abilities throughout the program. Upon graduation the officer must then undergo another extensive field training program for which they are again tested and graded on their capabilities to carry out the duties placed upon them. As such, your agency's volunteers should undergo and be expected to pass a standardized training course equal to, if not greater than, that of your officers for similar duties they may perform such as traffic control or other hazardous duties.