What It Looks Like When America’s Police Forces Let Donors Become Cops

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The 73-year-old reserve sheriff’s deputy who fatally shot an unarmed man during an undercover operation earlier this month in Oklahoma was a close friend of the sheriff’s and a major donor to his agency and campaign.

Even before prosecutors announced Monday that Tulsa County Reserve Deputy Roberts Bates, a white insurance executive, was charged with second-degree manslaughter in the death of Eric Harris, who was black, those details raised questions about whether Bates had been paying to play cop.

Tulsa County Sheriff’s Maj. Shannon Clark told the Tulsa World newspaper that there are “lots of wealthy people” among the agency’s 130 reserve deputies.

“Many of them make donations of items,” he told the newspaper. “That’s not unusual at all.”

While the sheriff’s office did not have an itemized list of Bates’ contributions, the insurance executive had donated multiple vehicles, firearms and stun guns to the agency, according to The Tulsa World report.

Maria Haberfeld, chair of John Jay College’s Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice, told TPM Monday in a phone interview that there’s no special correlation between donating money to a law enforcement agency and getting a spot as a reserve officer since pretty much anyone without a criminal record can volunteer their time.

Haberfeld added that the level of training a reservist receives really depends on the individual law enforcement agency, with officers referred to as “auxiliary” or “volunteer” typically receiving less training.

“Most of the reserves that actually are referred to as ‘reserves’ go through the same training as police officers,” she told TPM. “The difference is they don’t necessarily have as much in-service training as other police officers.”

As an “advanced” reserve deputy — which Clark defined as being able to “do anything a full-time deputy can do” — Bates was required to undergo hundreds of hours of training.

The “advanced” designation calls for 320 hours of training with the Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training in addition to 480 hours with the TCSO Field Training Officer Program, according to The Tulsa World. A paralegal with CLEET confirmed to the newspaper that Bates’ certification was active.

So while Bates reportedly contributed significantly to the sheriff’s office, he apparently had the training to serve in a support role on the undercover operation in which he shot and killed Harris.

While it’s difficult to nail down just how prevalent it is for big money donors to serve as reserve officers with local law enforcement agencies, there is some anecdotal evidence. Consider one of the more infamous band of law enforcement reservists in the country: Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s posse of some 3,000 volunteer deputies.

The Arizona Attorney General’s Office in 2011 was investigating Arpaio’s chief deputy, David Hendershott, for allegedly receiving a discount on a lease in a mall owned by a developer named Steve Ellman, The Arizona Republic reported. Ellman happened to be a captain in one of Arpaio’s posses who’d also donated $25,000 to a political action committee that ran attack ads against the sheriff’s 2008 election opponent, according to the report.

There’s also been a notable recent report of a “pay-to-play” reserve unit in Michigan. The tiny village of Oakley, Michigan made local headlines when it came to light that its police chief had hired nearly 150 reserve officers, many of whom lived nowhere near Oakley and were among donors that contributed almost $200,000 to the town of just 300 residents.

An anonymous former reserve officer told the Detroit Free Press that reservists are not required to donate anything to the village. But each reserve officer pays $1,300 for a uniform, gun and armored vest and for the privilege of carrying firearms in public places where they are usually prohibited, even when off-duty, according to the report.

A legal battle between Oakley Police Chief Rob Reznick and a local bar that alleged it had been harassed by police culminated in March with the release of a list of reservists’ names. The Detroit Free Press reported that the list included a millionaire casino developer, a Miami Dolphins football player who formerly played for the Detroit Lions and a prominent local urologist.

Then there are the celebrities and public figures who spend their semi-retirement volunteering with local law enforcement agencies. NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal was sworn in as a reserve police officer in Doral, Fla. in January after previously serving as a reservist in Miami Beach and Golden Beach, Fla.; in Tempe, Ariz.; and the Port of Los Angeles. Howard Buffett, the son and heir apparent of Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett, is a volunteer sheriff’s deputy in no less than three counties: two in central Illinois and another in Arizona.

Should these reservists who aren’t full-time police officers then be held to a higher standard of accountability if something goes wrong on the job? Haberfeld said that could actually harm law enforcement agencies.

“I don’t see how they can be held to any higher bar of scrutiny,” she told TPM. “If things of that nature actually happen then there won’t be that many volunteers, and many police departments really heavily rely on auxiliary and volunteer police officers because they don’t have enough manpower.”

It seems that’s the trade-off: law enforcement agencies that don’t have enough full-timers on hand to staff an operation bring in reservists who, despite their training, may make a fatal mistake.

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