Budget cuts create a new group within law enforcement: volunteers. From the NYT:
Hamstrung by shrinking budgets, the police say the volunteers are indispensable in dealing with low-level offenses and allow sworn officers to focus on more pressing crimes and more violent criminals.
“We had the option to either stop handling those calls or do it in a different manner,” said Fresno’s police chief, Jerry Dyer, whose department has lost more than 300 employees in recent years. “I’ve always operated under the premise of no risk, no success. And in this instance, I felt we really didn’t have very much to lose.”
Other chiefs facing budget problems are also using volunteers. In Mesa, Ariz., a Phoenix suburb, 10 of them have been trained to process crime scenes, dust for fingerprints and even swab for DNA.
Allen Hopper, the police practices director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, said volunteers needed to be aware of — and responsible for — suspects’ constitutional protections. While sworn officers can be punished for breaking those rules, he said, “It is unclear how these important safeguards would apply to civilians doing police officers’ jobs.”
Supporters say the volunteers are screened and extensively trained. In Mesa, the volunteer crime scene specialists have to demonstrate that they are competent in various types of evidence collection and, oddly, be able to lift 25 pounds. “We’re asking a lot for people we’re not paying,” said Linda Bailey, the department’s volunteer coordinator. “But these folks are handling evidence, and they have access to confidential information.”
Some are using the volunteer work as a springboard to a law enforcement career. Some have read a lot of crime novels (and presumably watched a lot of Law and Order, and CSI) and think this is "cool."
There are many areas to be concerned about. Who is responsible if a volunteer is injured or disabled on the job? If a volunteer is indiscreet with confidential information, what then? If there is such a shortage of staff, how much supervision do these volunteers really get? Will evidence gathered by volunteers stand up in court? Will this generate lawsuits against the city for failing to use professionals? So many questions.
Many of the small towns in NH, where I live, have volunteer fire departments and EMTs. We are all grateful that our friends and neighbors go through the rigorous training necessary to protect our lives and property. We rely on these volunteers. One thing we don't have, however, is volunteer cops. A volunteer cop in a small town would quickly become a pariah.
This seems like a return to the days of pinning stars on the posse, saddling up, and riding out to get the bank robbers. It is a visible step backward for our cities, and the whole country.
cross-posted at: MainSt/workingamerica.org