Columbus OH Nov 26 2016 The future of the city’s volunteer police force remains unclear after it was suspended five months ago.
The Columbus Police Reserves program, which dates to World War II, was suspended in June after administrators learned members did not complete online training sessions for the past two years.
And though the training courses don’t affect state law-enforcement certifications and members have since made up the sessions, Police Chief Kim Jacobs has not reinstated the program.
Jacobs met with Department of Public Safety officials Monday. More talks are expected to continue with the mayor’s office.
She would not comment on the program at a meeting with The Dispatch this week, saying she wanted to wait until a decision is reached.
Despite the training issue, there already was talk of restructuring the reserve unit to make it strictly a support role, according to records obtained by the newspaper. Other mid-size and larger police departments across the country have made similar moves, and in some cases cut the programs, citing liability concerns.
Thomas Nolan, an associate professor of criminology at Merrimack College in Massachusetts, said some police chiefs worry about volunteer, part-time police forces.
“If you’re going to arm them and authorize them to use force, the potential is there for that force to be excessive or applied unjustifiably,” he said. “It’s a recipe for potential litigation.”
Last year, a 73-year-old reserve deputy in Oklahoma reached for his Taser but grabbed his revolver and fatally shot a suspect in an illegal gun sale. The incident drew national attention and the reserve deputy was convicted of manslaughter.
“It is ... well recognized that patrol work has become increasingly specialized and complicated and that the use of force and deadly force have drawn tremendous scrutiny around our nation,” Jacobs said in a May letter sent to Mike York, who oversees the reserves program.
Since the 1950s, the reserves in Columbus have given volunteers the same authority and arrest power as full-time police officers. Historically, reserve officers ride with full-time officers on calls, wear uniforms and badges and carry division-issued guns. Many had worked special events such as community races and parades.
But in June, Jacobs suspended the program, citing the training issue.
“What did we do to deserve this?” one reserve member said in an internal email in June.
The lapse in training occurred because most reserve officers did not have access to the division’s online training system. Reserve members were not individually notified of the suspension because the division apparently does not keep a central list with contact information. Records indicate there were more than 40 members.
After the program was suspended, Jacobs sent an email telling all police personnel that they should show the email announcing the suspension to any reserve officer who shows up to work.
The reserve program has had to grapple with an aging workforce. According to a departmental presentation given in July, the average age of reserve members was 60 and the oldest was 82. Half the members were retired Columbus police officers, eight were city firefighters and 13 were civilian members.
The last new recruitment class was in 1991.
Jacobs indicated in a May letter that she favored reducing the authority of the reserves: “The mission of the reserves is being transformed to a strictly supportive role.”
That meant members would no longer be allowed to work enforcement assignments in patrol, traffic, SWAT or any covert unit.
An internal letter in response said: “Relegating trained law enforcement reserve officers to permanent volunteer positions of filers, paper pushers, telephone monitors, and other minuscule administrative busy work is an extreme waste of trained resources that could be best utilized as additional eyes, ears, and back-ups to regular officers.”
The program was suspended the next month.
Napoleon Bell, a former Columbus police officer and reserve officer, said full-time officers need backup with tensions increasing on a national level and publicized reports of officers getting killed in ambushes.
“If you have reserve officers and they are up-to-date on all training, they would react as any officer would,” he said.
In past years, 15 or so Franklin County sheriff’s deputies have worked the annual Hot Chocolate run Downtown. This year, the sheriff’s office was asked to fill 68 slots at the event, which was held on Sunday.
Chief Deputy Jim Gilbert said it was in part because there were no Columbus reserve officers to work the event.
“We’ve seen an increase in deputies working special duty being asked to support special events over the last several months,” he said.
A few police reserve members have left the program since it was suspended.
“I would like to resign ... due in part to the lack of communication and direction the Division seems to be heading as far as the Reserves Unit,” one member wrote in a September email to the division.
Since the program was suspended, the sheriff’s office special deputy program has added five Columbus reserve members to its ranks.