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THE NATION | COLUMN ONE

LAPD Has Protection in Reserve

Volunteer officers do everything regular ones do, except draw a salary. With budgets tight, the department plans to sign up many more.

October 23, 2003|Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writer

Around midnight on the dark streets of the San Fernando Valley, two Los Angeles police officers spotted a suspected car thief inside Galpin Motors.

And though the officers were well past the first blush of their youth, they swung into action and helped subdue the scofflaw -- who may have been surprised when he learned that he had been arrested by two members of the Los Angeles City Council dressed in police uniforms.

The midnight activity last summer of "Starsky and Hutch," as Councilmen Dennis Zine and Greig Smith were quickly dubbed around City Hall, prompted some council members to question the practice of elected officials moonlighting as police officers.

But over at police headquarters the top brass have big plans for the reserve corps. At a time when the city's 9,200-strong police force is desperate for more officers but restricted in hiring because of tight budgets, officials are hoping to expand the volunteers' ranks. The reserve corps is now at 700, but is authorized for 2,000.

The volunteers wear the same uniforms and perform the same duties as rank-and-file cops, right down to carrying a gun in many cases. Over the years, reserves have made thousands of arrests, participated in dozens of car chases, and in the last 12 years alone been involved in 10 shootings, two of them fatal.

There's one big difference: They don't get a salary. Last year, reserve officers donated time worth an estimated $7 million to the city's coffers, the equivalent of 104 full time-officers, according to department officials.

This summer, the LAPD graduated its first reserve class since 1999. And last month, Police Chief William J. Bratton called all the reserves together for the first time in years. As hundreds of sweating but solemn middle-aged men and women stood on the hot pavement at a police training center in Westchester, Bratton vowed to "reemphasize" and "increase" their role in the department.

"It's a no-brainer," LAPD Capt. Rick Webb said of the policy shift. "If you have people who want to work for you for free, go for it."

Although county sheriffs, including Los Angeles County's, and police departments throughout California have relied on reserves for years, Los Angeles is among the few large police forces in the country that afford its reserves the same authority as regular officers. New York and Chicago, for example, do not assign guns to volunteers. San Francisco, which has 20 reserves, San Diego, which has 22, and Oakland, which has 25, don't typically allow their volunteers to carry guns off duty without a concealed weapons permit.

But policing experts and even some traditional critics of the LAPD said they see nothing wrong with the program -- as long as the volunteers are properly trained.

"It's a job where you can't make a mistake," said Lou Madeira, a senior law enforcement consultant with the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training and a supporter of reserve programs. "Where you have someone who is making lethal-force decisions, well, obviously they have to be superbly trained."

Over the years, some reserve programs -- particularly ones that did not require strict training -- have run into trouble.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca suspended a special reserve program in 1999 after one reserve deputy was arrested on federal money-laundering charges and another was accused of brandishing a weapon at two people outside his Bel-Air home. (The department's regular reserve program, however, is going strong.) More recently, a reserve officer with the Inglewood School Police Department was arrested on suspicion of carrying a concealed weapon after being stopped as part of rapper Snoop Dogg's entourage.

And in Oklahoma a few months ago, a reserve police officer in the town of Perkins was charged with manslaughter after he shot and killed a man during a pursuit. The volunteer, who said he thought he heard someone give an order to fire, had not completed his training when he was sent out onto the streets with a gun, said Perkins Police Chief Robert Williams.

But in Los Angeles, the LAPD reserve program has never been dragged into the spotlight.

Madeira and other experts say that is because the department, like most around the state, requires its volunteers to have the same training as regular officers, and must undergo background checks and refresher courses. Officers who carry guns also must meet the same physical requirements.

"If you want to earn a badge in the LAPD, you have to go through the academy," said Eric Rose, a reserve officer and amateur historian of the program. "Some departments give out badges and gun permits as a perk; LAPD hasn't."

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