When asked, Who comes to mind when you think of volunteers used in public safety, most people who live outside a major metropolitan center will most likely answer, volunteer firefighters. The answer should not be surprising as volunteer firefighters make up approximately 74% of all firefighters in the United States. For most folks, unless they lived their entire lives in a large urban area such as New York City, Chicago, City of Los Angeles, etc. chances are the community they lived in was to some degree protected by a fire department consisting of either all volunteer firefighters or a mix of full time and volunteers.
Ask this same group to describe how volunteers are used in law enforcement and they'll probably give you a blank stare as most people are not aware volunteers are utilized by law enforcement agencies. While citizens not knowing this fact isn't an issue, for law enforcement agencies not to be aware of the breath and depth of well qualified and talented citizens within their own community willing to assist them could be. With our nation currently in an economic crisis and local law enforcement agencies budgets being cut to the bone, not utilizing every potential resource available to an agency could at some point truly become a life or death situation for citizens and officers on the streets.
A brief history of volunteers in law enforcement
Remember the old cowboy movies when the town Sheriff said, Deputy, go round up a posse and let's go catch that horse thief? Who do you think the posse members were? If you guessed regular town citizens mobilized and deputized for a specific purpose, you'd be correct and thus was the beginning of volunteers in law enforcement within the United States.
In 1950, the 81st Congress passed the Public Law #920 entitled The Civil Defense Act of 1950 authorizing a Federal Civil Defense Program. In 1951, the New York State Legislature enacted the Defense Emergency Act requiring New York City to recruit, train, and equip volunteer Auxiliary Police, who would then act as a liaison to the NYPD in the event of an emergency or natural disaster. In 1967, a Mayoral Executive Order closed the Civil Defense Headquarters and placed full responsibility of the Auxiliary Police Program with the NYPD making it one of the first police volunteer units in the nation.
Today, over 4,000 dedicated men and women continue to work as civilian volunteers within the New York Police Department contributing over one million hours of service each year as Auxiliary Police Officers. While other large agencies across the nation such as the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and Palm Beach County Sheriff's Department each utilize four thousand plus civilian volunteers, the majority of volunteer units average in size from 25 to 50 volunteers which mirrors the number of sworn officers in their agency.
For purposes of discussion in this column, we define civilian police volunteers as non-sworn members of law enforcement not authorized to carry firearms as compared to their sworn reserve counterparts.
While exact numbers do not exist, based on government figures and other reliable sources such as the National Association Citizens On Patrol, it's estimated there is well in excess of 3,000 combined Police and Sheriff's volunteer programs representing over 100,000 civilian volunteers across the nation in use today. With just over 16,000 Police and Sheriff's agencies across the nation, this number represents only 18 percent of agencies that utilize staff volunteers. However, that number is growing and growing fast. With cuts in local budgets, federal funding offsets such as the COPS program which provided funding for additional police officers and the drain on sworn personnel serving as military reservist who are being called to active military duty in Iraq, law enforcement agencies are finding it almost a necessity to at least consider the use of volunteers to assist with non-enforcement duties to help keep more officers on the streets.
Take for example something as simple as a two vehicle traffic accident in the middle of a busy four way intersection. At a bare minimum, this would require at least two officers, preferably three or four, to safely direct traffic while another one or two officers investigate and document the findings for their report. Properly trained and equipped civilian police volunteers could easily relieve the officers directing traffic and thus put two officers back on the street for higher priority calls that civilian volunteers cannot respond to.
How about those calls for service to file a police report with the insurance agency to replace the broken window on a vehicle caused by vandals the night before? Is this the best use of a sworn officer's time when agencies are struggling with tighter budgets and smaller staffs as it is? And let me ask you this: How many officers do you know that cannot wait to get out of the training academy so they can "take paper" on past vandalism crimes? I've been involved with law enforcement for almost ten years now and I've not met one officer yet who looks forward to this and I'm guessing neither have you.
The point being, in a perfect world where police budgets and staffing were unlimited and everyone who called for service could expect an officer to arrive in minutes to spend as much time with them as they wanted to, the need for civilian volunteers may be lessened. However we live in an age where this is not the case and most likely will never be. Dedicated trained volunteers have been in use for decades donating tens of millions of hours providing valuable services to their communities and law enforcement and will continue to do so. As more and more agencies begin to utilize and or expand the use of volunteers within their departments, the challenge is how to recruit and retain quality individuals who will properly represent their agencies while performing the jobs assigned to them with care and trust.
In future columns this year, 2009, I'll be featuring various common and some uncommon ways in which volunteers are being used across the nation by law enforcement. The goal is each case is to provide value added services that not only enhance your service to the community but just as important, free up your officers and deputies to focus on what they do best, deterring crimes, stopping crimes in progress and catching those who've committed them after the fact.