With tight budgets, many metro-area cities turn to reserve officers -- and volunteers -- to assist with public safety and other duties.
Billy Gerard works five days a week for the Minnetonka Police Department, trolling for handicapped parking violators, making security checks on churches and schools, and pulling overnight patrol shifts on Fridays.
He wears a blue uniform, has a radio and drives a squad car. But Gerard is not a sworn police officer. At 80, he is a volunteer, a reserve officer who last year donated about 2,000 hours of his time to the department.
Police departments in the metro area have hundreds of volunteers like Gerard; however, few donate as much time as he does. Though reserve officers' duties are restricted by law -- they can't carry a gun and don't have full powers of arrest -- suburbs are increasingly turning to reserves and other volunteers as a way to offset tightening city budgets.
"We are trying to keep our tax rate and our budgets down," said Edina Police Chief Jeff Long. "The reserves are much better trained than they once were, and we're trying to use them more."
Reserves are driving prisoners to jail, patrolling streets and parks on busy weekend nights, answering animal and nuisance calls, and waiting at accident sites for tow trucks -- all with an eye to freeing sworn officers for more serious matters. Increasingly, departments have volunteer emergency response teams to assist in case of a natural disaster or building collapse.
In Lino Lakes, there are 25 sworn police officers, but 70 to 80 volunteers help with police operations. Police Chief John Swenson said that last year, volunteers donated 11,114 hours of work to his department -- the equivalent of five full-time employees.
Reserve officers drove more than 60 prisoners to the county jail, a job that takes up to two hours, Swenson said. A volunteer who was a spreadsheet wizard compiled a mailing list for the department newsletter. Others did clerical work. A retired executive evaluated how the department prepared and submitted reports to Anoka County and made recommendations to increase efficiency.
"We do spend some money on these programs, but the return far outweighs the expense," Swenson said. "It's a lot of bang for the buck."
Volunteers do more, too
Plymouth Police Chief Michael Goldstein knows the reserve officer program well -- he was in the first class of reserve officers in Plymouth when the program started in 1987. Between 65 and 70 volunteers help his department out each year, including up to 20 reserve officers.
Plymouth requires its reserve officers, who range in age from their 20s to retirees, to work at least one shift from 5 p.m. to 3 a.m. on a Friday or Saturday each month. They work in pairs in a squad car.
"They are our extra eyes and ears," Goldstein said.
When the department lost two positions in the last five years, volunteers did more, Goldstein said. They have taken over community outreach. The department also has a youth Explorer group, a community emergency response team and a seniors group that makes crime prevention presentations, sells bike helmets, does administrative duties and helps with the department's cable TV show.
"In these more difficult economic times, we have to lean more on volunteers and not just our reserves," Goldstein said, adding that the return on the investment is significant.
The department also has four part-time employees whom Goldstein considers near-volunteers. They are police retirees who, working for a nominal wage, spend a few hours a week manning the front desk, managing walk-in calls, taking reports, and supervising the property and evidence room.
No one was laid off to make room for the part-timers, Goldstein said. Positions went dark as employees left.
State law dictates that reserve officers provide "assistance" to police. They get training; some carry a Taser if they are on a patrol shift. In the suburbs, reserve officers usually are distinguished from sworn officers by their light-blue rather than dark-blue shirts.
The parking enforcer
Minnetonka's Gerard has been a reserve officer for so long that when he joined the reserves 36 years ago he carried a gun (which is now prohibited by law).
He was an engineer at Honeywell, but the company's liberal volunteer policies allowed him to dedicate considerable hours with the city. He kept it up as his kids grew up, he retired and his wife died.
When a few years ago the department received many complaints about abuse of handicapped parking spots, Gerard was given authority to ticket violators.
In the first six months, he issued 650 tickets. That number has since shrunk, perhaps because people know someone is watching.
Gerard said he takes no pleasure in ticketing people. Each day he prints out copies of the law and highlights the text to let people know what they've done wrong, taking time to talk with them. On occasion, he's taken disabled people with expired handicapped permits to county offices to get new ones.
His myriad duties include giving department tours, checking to make sure traffic lights work properly and keeping a log of impounded vehicles.
"He does the tasks that would go undone," said Minnetonka Capt. Scott Boerboom. "That's huge."
How long will Gerard continue volunteering?
"I don't allow a rocking chair in my house," he said.
Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380 Twitter: @smetan
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