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Why Do Agencies Have Reserve Officers?

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By Dr. Chuck Russo and Jeremy Nikolow

On April 2, Robert Bates, a Tulsa, Oklahoma reserve deputy sheriff, shot and killed an unarmed man. While this incident remains under investigation, it begs the question: Why do agencies have reserve officers and who are these officers?

[Related article: Excessive or Necessary? Educating the Public and Officers on Proper Use of Force]

The Need for Reserve Officers
In the United States, there are more than 15,000 law enforcement agencies with less than 100 sworn personnel. In order to balance community needs with fiscal constraints, many departments have turned to reserve or part-time officers to complement full-time sworn personnel. When demands on the agency increase, it can call upon its reserve personnel who can save the agency substantial money in both salary and benefits.

Who Are Reserve Officers?
Reserve officers can be former officers who want to remain involved in law enforcement, military veterans, individuals from the private sector, or potential police recruits.

Retired Officers as Reserves
Police uniformRetired police officers, often from another agency, have years of advanced training and can be extremely beneficial as reserve officers. These individuals are often decorated investigators, proven agency managers, and/or experienced road officers who want to stay involved in law enforcement while pursuing other opportunities.

By becoming a reserve officer, the individual can ease into the transition from full-time sworn officer to retired citizen. A role as a reserve can provide a person with the freedom to engage in other pursuits while remaining part of the brotherhood that may have dominated his or her life for so many years.

Depending on the size and scope of the agency, many reserve officers are able to choose which area of law enforcement they wish to work. These roles range from filling a temporary patrol vacancy to assisting in a highly skilled investigation.

Having highly skilled reserves is extremely beneficial to a small agency that may not be able to keep such specialized investigators on the permanent payroll. Often there is not a consistent demand for specialized personnel such as financial crimes investigators, traffic homicide investigators, and computer crimes investigators. However, if individuals with skills and training in these areas are part of the agency’s reserve component, when the need arises, the agency can call upon their skills.

Military Veterans
It is not uncommon for military veterans to join the ranks of law enforcement upon being discharged, as they share somewhat of a kindred spirit with police officers. When their military service has ended, many military veterans still seek to serve their country.

[Related article: Police Militarization: Reality, Hype, or Natural Evolution?]

Their military conditioning allows them an easy transition into a paramilitary organization. Agencies do well to hire them as reserves, as these individuals possess extraordinary skillsets and government information clearances at a minimal cost to the agency. Recurring military cutbacks and downsizing are continually increasing the availability of veterans who are interested in law enforcement.

Reserve Officers from the Private Sector
Reserve officers coming from the private sector frequently have skillsets that the agency cannot afford to otherwise obtain in such areas as cutting-edge technology, instructional/training design, accounting, and finance.

Some private sector reserves are hired solely in a public relations capacity and volunteer their time as a community service and to enhance the relationship between the police and public. When the citizens trust the police, they are more apt to assist officers and provide information to help solve crimes.

Individuals in the private sector choose to be reserves for a variety of reasons. Some may be following a lifelong dream of being a law enforcement officer. Others may simply want to make a positive contribution to society. Family and other personal obligations may not allow these individuals to serve full time. As a reserve law enforcement officer, they can serve their community in a flexible capacity.

Recruits as Reserve Officers
Many agencies utilize their reserve programs as a training ground for rookie recruits, which can serve as a highly effective mechanism to evaluate potential employees. Law enforcement is a very atypical career and requires a rigorous selection process. Unfortunately, the interview process is not always successful at distinguishing the good candidates from the bad.

[Related article: Putting Experience to Work: The Value of a Formal Mentoring Program]

Due to the immense costs, liabilities, and high-turnover rates associated with hiring new officers, reserve programs can provide training at a much lower cost. Recruits can be evaluated over a longer period of time to determine if they have the qualities needed to be successful in the field (e.g. integrity, punctuality, temperament, problem-solving, critical thinking, etc.) while measuring how well they are progressing through basic and advanced police concepts.

[Related article: Free and Low-Cost Training for Law Enforcement]

Using reserve programs as a stepping stone to a full-time position often produces more confident officers with enhanced knowledge and experience.

Why Agencies Will Keep Using Reserve Officers
With budgets tight, agencies will continue turning to reserve officers to fill gaps in experience and skillsets. A well-developed and managed reserve officer program can provide the agency with personnel, skills, and abilities without incurring the costs associated with their development. These programs can accomplish this while also providing personal and professional benefits to the individuals serving as reserve officers.

About the Authors:

Chuck RussoDr. Chuck Russo is the Program Director of Criminal Justice at American Military University (AMU). He began his career in law enforcement in 1987 in Central Florida and was involved all areas of patrol, training, special operations and investigations before retiring from law enforcement in 2013. Dr. Russo continues to design and instruct courses, as well as act as a consultant for education, government and industry throughout the United States and the Middle East. His recent research and presentations focus on emerging technology and law enforcement applications, in addition to post-traumatic stress and online learning.

Jeremy NikolowJeremy Nikolow is a police officer with the Daytona Beach Police Department, FL and adjunct faculty with colleges and universities. His law enforcement career began in 2005 and has involved several areas of patrol, investigations, SWAT, and specialized operations. Jeremy presently serves as a field training officer. He graduated from American Military University in 2012 earning his Master of Science degree in Criminal Justice.


Leischen Kranick is a Managing Editor at AMU Edge. She has 15 years of experience writing articles and producing podcasts on topics relevant to law enforcement, fire services, emergency management, private security, and national security.

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