Local police reserve units-the volunteer officers who supplement the paid force-are generally well-trained by state standards, a News review has found.
Police reserve units were pushed into a negative spotlight last month when 73-year-old Robert Bates, a volunteer sheriff's deputy in Tulsa, Okla., accidentally shot a suspect to death during an arrest while attempting to shock him with a Taser. Questions quickly emerged about the Bates's fitness, training and political ties to the sheriff, and he now faces a manslaughter charge.
The News examined the reserve unit policies for the Rockdale County Sheriff's Office and the Conyers Police Department, and the training records of all of the reserve officers: eight at RCSO and nine at CPD.
The files show that many reserve officers have backgrounds in full-time policework-in fact, one CPD reserve officer is head of a police academy-and are subject to policies monitoring them for conflicts of interest with their day jobs.
RCSO said that none of its reserve deputies have a record of complaints or discipline, while CPD said that one of its current reserve officers was the subject of a complaint that was ruled "unfounded."
Volunteer officers have the same powers and responsibilities as paid officers and can work anything from patrol duty to administrative work to special events. They wear the same uniforms, badges and gear as paid officers. The biggest attraction of having a reserve unit is getting qualified cops for free, but there are other advantages for both sides, officials say.
"The benefit for RCSO is the ability to request extra assistance or have extra patrols by certified deputies," said Rockdale County Sheriff Eric Levett in an email to the News. "The benefit for the reserve deputy is they get to give back to the community, and some just enjoy law enforcement work."
"Our reserves act just like regular officers. They supplement us so many times," CPD Chief Gene Wilson said, giving the example of reserve officers patrolling the business districts last Christmas to keep crime down. "They want to give back to the community. They want to be on the front line."
The most highly trained local reservist is CPD's Harry McCann Jr. In fact, his day job is teaching other officers as director of the Law Enforcement Academy at Georgia Piedmont Technical College.
McCann said he has various professional and personal reasons for serving as a volunteer cop, including keeping up with training, maintaining camaraderie with fellow officers, and "taking the bad guys off the street."
"While some may disagree, that is my way, as well as many other officers' way, of helping people-arresting the family-violence batterer, locking up the impaired driver, stopping the drug-trafficker, etcetera," McCann said in an email to the News.
But the Oklahoma incident raises concerns of Bates using the reserve unit as a way to essentially buy his way into playing police officer with insufficient training. Bates is a retired insurance company owner whose prior police experience consisted of serving one year as a patrolman 50 years ago. According to media reports, fellow deputies in 2009 complained that Bates was under-trained, only to be reminded he was the sheriff's friend and campaign donor, and order to falsify training documents. He may also not have been police-certified on the handgun that he accidentally drew instead of the Taser in the April 2 killing of suspect Eric Harris.
Asked about the Oklahoma incident by the News after a recent City Council meeting, Chief Wilson slowly shook his head and said, "It's easy to sit here, but looking at that case..." He then mentioned several police-training concerns, including: whether even the Taser was an appropriate use of force in the incident; having an officer of Bates's age on that type of duty; and most of all, the allegations of falsified training records. "To me, that's something you send people to jail for," Wilson said of forging records.
At RCSO and CPD, many of the reserves are former full-time or "paid" officers with training well beyond the state minimum. That minimum is 408 hours basic training, plus 20 hours per year, according to McCann, and police academies at technical colleges run 700-hour programs.
The average amount of training for a RCSO reserve deputy, by the News's count, is about 1,050 hours. The lowest training-hour count among current reserve deputies is 664 hours and the highest is 1,624.
The average training at CPD's reserve unit is 1,800 hours, with the lowest at 921 and the highest at 4,839.
At CPD, the training includes a method to avoid confusing a firearm with a Taser, the apparent deadly problem in the Oklahoma incident, according to McCann and Chief Wilson. It involves carrying the Taser on the opposite hip from the sidearm, and drawing it with the off-hand. McCann said he was the first CPD officer to carry a Taser, and that the policy came from his personal experience in accidentally drawing his gun instead.
"Several times, I had another officer ask about seeing the Taser, and I drew it from its holster to show them the device. On three different occasions, I had drawn my firearm and had it out in front of me before realizing what I had done," McCann said, adding he believes this "weapon confusion" is to blame in the Oklahoma case.
CPD files include the birth year of reserve officers, showing they range from roughly 28 to 65 years old. RCSO files did not include deputy ages.
Some reserve officers are employed full-time at other jobs. A notable example is Conyers Housing Authority Executive Director Gary Erwin, a former CPD paid officer who now volunteers as a reserve. RCSO's reserve deputies include the owner of a Covington hobby shop.
RCSO and CPD say that reserve officers must pass the same background checks as paid officers and must have their day jobs approved to weed out conflicts of interest. All CPD officers are required to notify a supervisor of any calls involving potential conflict of interest, under the department's standard operating procedure.