The recent news reports of a man being shot and killed in Oklahoma by a 73-year-old reserve police officer who mistook his gun for his Taser have raised questions regarding the use of reserve officers and the training they receive, and even a discussion of age limits of when someone should no longer be allowed to wear a badge. These conversations come on the heels of some other very high-profile shootings involving police officers in recent months. While all of these are important issues, it is important that the conversation does not lump all reserve officers together.
The statutory definition of a reserve officer in Minnesota is “an individual whose services are utilized by a law enforcement agency to provide supplementary assistance at special events, traffic or crowd control, and administrative or clerical assistance, and shall include reserve deputies, special deputies, mounted or unmounted patrols, and all other employees or volunteers performing reserve officer functions. A reserve officer’s duties do not include enforcement of the general criminal laws of the state, and the officer does not have full powers of arrest or authorization to carry a firearm on duty.” (Minnesota Statute 626.84.)
As defined, in Minnesota reserve officers are not allowed to carry firearms. This is a major distinction, since many jurisdictions outside of Minnesota allow this practice. Elsewhere in the country, reserve officers are sometimes referred to as auxiliary officers and operate much like part-time officers do. In Minnesota, part-time officers are separate and distinct from reserves. While currently being phased out, part-time officers are armed and have arrest authority, and they must be licensed by the Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training. Reserve officers at a statewide level are not required to hold any licensure or education requirements, but individual agencies are allowed to establish their own requirements.
Reserves are referred to as the “eyes and ears” of a department and often are viewed as enhancing the scope and range of services an agency can offer. They help a police department with a variety of tasks, as outlined in the state statute. Each department uses its reserve officers in different ways, and not every agency has a reserve unit.
Like any other type of volunteer, reserve officers represent a wide variety of professional backgrounds and expertise. Some reserves are using the volunteer position for anticipatory socialization — that is, they want to become police officers, so they are getting an inside look at what the job entails. Being a reserve officer can help in the hiring process because it demonstrates commitment to the profession and civic engagement and allows agencies to observe candidates before hiring them as police officers.
Not every reserve wants to be a police officer. Some view the role as a good way to give back to their community, while others have always wanted to be a police officer but for various reasons have chosen a different career. This allows them to be around the profession, but not make it their career.
Volunteering as a reserve officer is a unique way to give back to a community, but a very small subset of the population chooses to give back in this way. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2014, of all volunteers in the country, only 1.1 percent give their time to public safety.
As we learn more about reserve officer practices in other states through the media, it is important to note that the definition of what a reserve does is not universal. Reserves in Minnesota serve the community with no guns or arrests.
Susan Hilal is an associate professor in the School of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice at Metropolitan State University.