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Reserve officers bring advantages, risks

For police departments that decide to use reserve officers, the added help can supplement full-time police officers but also pose liabilities. The key is to minimize the risks and properly manage the reserves.

State law extends the authority to use reserve officers to municipalities. All of the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy's Reserve Officer Program Standards must first be met.

A reserve police officer is an unpaid volunteer who assists a law enforcement agency in enforcing the law. The agency head, with the approval of the governing body or its chief operating officer, appoints reserve officers. Just like their full-time counterparts, reserve officers are focused on the welfare of the people, the protection of property in their community, and the just and equitable enforcement of the law.

There is at least one major difference, however. Reserve officers serve for free, while often having a separate full-time job. In doing so, reserve officers bring a variety of skills and experiences.

Agencies use reserve officers to perform a range of duties, with some officers conducting foot and bike patrols, as well as routine vehicle patrols. Beyond assisting with vehicle and foot traffic, natural disasters and special events, reserves may provide an additional uniformed police presence in schools and shopping areas and help create a perception of greater police presence in the community.

Agencies must be approved by the academy to have a reserve officer program. Agencies must submit documentation annually by July 15 to maintain the program in good standing and when there is a change to the program, such as a new chief of police or new reserve liaison coordinator.

Proper supervision
If using reserve officers, agencies should enact policies and procedures that establish their proper supervision, job functions and limitations. If an individual agency has relaxed its standards on field training, continuing education and discipline for reserve officers, this can pose liability and reputational risks for the agency.

Reserve officers have an obligation to be proficient on their tactics, firearms skills, driving skills, the law and police policy, because they wear the same badge and uniform and face the same risks as regular, full-time officers, whose lives may ultimately depend on them. Reserve officers are not allowed to supervise or direct activities of Class 1 or Class 3 law enforcement officers.

Every reserve officer must be in contact at all times by radio or another device with the full-time officer to whom he is assigned.

"The law says that after 240 hours of exposure with an officer, they can be by themselves, as long as they're within radio contact," said Jackie Swindler, director of the CJA and former Newberry police chief, during a city managers' meeting last fall.

"I never allowed that," in Newberry, he added. "I said, 'we're glad to have you, but you're going to be in the present company of an officer, walking beside them or sitting in a car.' I think if you do that, you're much more protected. I would not want to send one out by himself. I've seen that in places. … You've accepted a lot of liability if you do that, because you've got to defend, 'are they properly trained? Did they make the right decision?'"

Swindler left meeting attendees with a final recommendation: Be certain that you can document that reserve officers are current on their training.

Before a candidate may attend the Reserve Officer Training Program, the following must be on file with the employing agency:

  • A copy of the candidate's birth certificate.
  • High school diploma or GED certification.
  • Report of current medical exam, on SCCJA preplacement and medical history form, with physician attesting medically suitable for law enforcement employment.
  • Fingerprint card showing results of SLED and FBI identification fingerprint check.
    – All charges must show a final disposition with no felony conviction or disqualifying misdemeanor.
    The employing department must have conducted a background investigation, including a credit check. The results must be satisfactory.
  • A valid/current South Carolina driver's license with no record for the past five years of suspension as a result of driving under the influence of alcoholic beverages or dangerous drugs; driving while impaired; reckless homicide; involuntary manslaughter or leaving the scene of an accident. There is no exception for military personnel.
  • A photograph taken within six months.
  • The reserve officer candidate must successfully complete the South Carolina Reserve Officer Training Curriculum and written test.