Why was a 73-year-old insurance company executive playing cop?
That’s the simple question many are asking more than a week after an undercover Tulsa police operation went wrong — and a white reserve deputy sheriff shot and killed an unarmed black man, apparently by accident. He has not been charged with a crime.
When Robert Bates pulled his weapon and shot 44-year-old Eric Harris on April 2, he said he thought his handgun was his Taser. In a video released by police over the weekend, a gunshot fires and Bates says, “Oh, I shot him. I’m sorry.” It was one of at least two shootings this month in which a white officer shot and killed an unarmed black man — and it has created a backlash for many reasons, one being Bates is not a real police officer. He’s a reserve sheriff’s deputy. And some fear he wasn’t qualified to be one.
The Tulsa World said Bates, who worked for a year as a police officer in 1964-65, served as chairman of the Re-elect Sheriff (Stanley) Glanz Committee in 2012 and donated $2,500 to Glanz’s campaign that year. The footage of the shooting was captured on another deputy’s body camera.
What was a reserve cop, aging or otherwise, doing with a weapon?
It’s not all that uncommon. Volunteer reserve officers have become a staple in the Tulsa sheriff’s department, which reportedly uses about 100 of them, as well as in many other cities. It’s not unusual for them to be out on assignment, Tulsa County Sheriff’s Maj. Shannon Clark told the Tulsa World. By trade, they’re bankers, doctors, lawyers, retired cops or even celebrities. They get varying degrees of training and they help the local police, not just by patrolling with them, usually at no cost, but also sometimes by bringing their own equipment, including weapons. Some departments even request donations in exchange for the positions. The Oakley, Mich., police department asks for $1,200, according to Salon.
“These people drop four or five grand and dress up to look like police,” Donna LaMontaine, president of the Deputy Sheriffs Association of Michigan, told the magazine. “I have a problem with that.”
Still, many reserve officers have been hailed as heroes. A number of them have paid with their lives. Others have taken lives.
Professional police officers are of different minds about the reservists, Doug Wylie wrote in a 2011 article in PoliceOne.
“I believe the ‘part time’ system of policing is absolutely ridiculous,” an unnamed law enforcement official told PoliceOne.com. “The job has changed since walking down the street and spinning your baton. We now encounter more diverse and complicated situations, where we are expected to wear a multitude of hats, and do it perfectly the first time. We contend with more anti-police groups, 24/7 video taping, and more charging and law suit filings then ever before. As such, to do this job without a full salary and full benefits is insane.”
Indeed, the job means the dangers of police work usually without the compensation. Some reserve officers patrol the streets on foot or on bicycles. Others ride in police cars. Some provide extra security in schools and shopping malls. Others have full police powers.
In California, reserve training is broken up into three levels that total some 900 hours, the top tier ranking them as peace officers, according to Police magazine. In Dorchester County, S.C., it takes about 240 hours of field training to get access to a service weapon and a patrol car, according to the Summerville Journal Scene. In Tulsa, Bates had reportedly trained for hundreds of hours in homicide investigation and decontamination, police told the Tulsa World.
“If they have that badge on, that means they are sworn in by the sheriff,” Capt. John Smith with the Dorchester County Sheriff’s Office, told the Journal Scene, “and the only difference between them and regular officers is they don’t get paid.”
But there’s another difference: Most cops retire long before they’re 73; many retire in their 50s. Some police departments won’t hire anyone past age 40 for the physically demanding jobs.
But young and old alike become reservists.
For some, reserve programs have become the entry level to full-time police positions. For others, they are an option for retired officers who want to stay on the streets.
“The reserve program is great for departments to fall back on,” one PoliceOne member, Gordon Corey, said. “Even though most reserves are limited commission, if you have full-commissioned officers who are willing to still volunteer as reserves, that gives departments the opportunity to utilize these officers to fulfill call-ins and vacations from full-time officers. With this option, departments won’t have to worry they will make the wrong decision. With reserves who are just reserves and have full time jobs other than law enforcement jobs only make decisions based on what they learn in the reserve police academy which is far less than what a full time officer is taught in the police academy.”
Years ago, former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca created a controversial special reserves program for celebrities and, by 1999, it had been eliminated after one recruit was suspended for brandishing his weapon and then another was indicted for international money laundering.
Big names have joined the ranks elsewhere, sometimes seriously, sometimes just for photo ops. Former NBA superstar Shaquille O’Neal has been a reserve officer in Arizona, California and Florida. In 2013, movie star Steven Seagal became a deputy in New Mexico and “Hulk” actor Lou Ferrigno picked up a badge in Ohio.
“I love that I can give back to my community and anyone that needs help with search and rescue,” Ferrigno said, according to Police magazine. “I enjoy doing search and rescue as a reserve deputy. We had a woman who’d fainted in the mountains and needed assistance. We get to her and when we bring her back to consciousness she looks up at me and says, ‘Are you Lou Ferrigno, the Hulk?’ When I told her I was she got all excited and fainted again.
“I felt so bad. We were here to help her, not to make her faint again. Everything turned out fine, but I always laugh about that story.”
But the job is no joke.
In 2005, reserve constable Nehemiah Pickens from Harris County, Tex., was gunned down while assisting in an arrest. In 2013, reserve officer Robert Libke from Oregon City, Ore., was shot and killed when he confronted an armed man who had set fire to his own house. The Reserve Police Officers Association lists more than 200 who have died in the line of duty over the years.
But the nature of the job — usually a volunteer position that varies greatly from department to department in the minimum training required — can pose a danger to the public as well.
“I think reserves, being at work less, have that much more of an obligation to be up on their tactics, officer safety, the law, and policy,” Evan Wagner, a reserve deputy assigned to Los Angeles County’s Lakewood Sheriff Station, told Police magazine. “I think we’re often expected to be weaker in those areas and it makes a big impression when we’re competent. I make mistakes, but try not to twice. We may wear the same badge and uniform and face the same risks, but I don’t think that means we’re entitled to the trust of partners, whose lives will at times depend upon us. I think reserves have to earn regulars’ trust by visibly aspiring to keep themselves at their level of proficiency as much as possible.”