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Volunteers turn in their badges

Sheriff plans to rename the reserve deputy program to distance it from Carona stigma.

August 04, 2008|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

Retired postal worker John Reichardt was looking for a way to fill his free time when he joined the Orange County Sheriff's Department's volunteer program three years ago.

The 68-year-old Santa Ana resident now works about 30 hours a week at John Wayne Airport, searching for unattended luggage, inspecting trucks carrying shipments into the airport and helping travelers negotiate their way through busy terminals.

Like all of the 429 Professional Services Responder volunteers, Reichardt does this free of charge. That's why he was hurt when Sheriff Sandra Hutchens announced last month that she was recalling badges issued to the volunteers.

"It felt like a punch to the stomach," he said.

Hutchens said she took that step because of concern that the program had been tainted by publicity that former Sheriff Michael S. Carona once filled its ranks with political supporters and business associates. The department was also concerned by a published opinion last year from the state attorney general that said it was illegal to issue badges to the public that could be mistaken for peace officer badges.

The Professional Services Responder Program has long been considered a haven for the county's rich and powerful. Orange County Republican Party operators Michael Schroeder and Adam Probolsky are members. Until he pleaded guilty in a stock manipulation case, so was Henry Samueli, the billionaire co-founder of Broadcom and owner of the Anaheim Ducks.

Hutchens said she was concerned by reports that a former Carona assistant told federal agents that Carona gave reserve deputy badges to 86 people in exchange for donations of $1,000 to his first campaign in 1998.

Some reserve deputies have been accused of flashing their badges to gain favor with law enforcement or other officials.

Carona was charged last fall under a broad corruption indictment that accused him of exchanging the power of his office for tens of thousands of dollars in cash and gifts.

In a recent letter to the volunteers, Hutchens said: "It is essential for us to unburden ourselves from the perceptions that have shadowed your outstanding work." The department is sending self-addressed envelopes to each of the Professional Services Responder volunteers so they could mail in their badges. As of Thursday, the department had received 87 badges.

Hutchens said she intended to issue alternative forms of identification -- specifics are still undecided -- and would rename the volunteer program.

Reichardt, who arrives at John Wayne Airport about 5:30 a.m. several days a week, said the badge helped him build rapport with airport visitors. Now he'll make do with a black polo shirt that reads "Airport Operations Division Sheriff Volunteer."

"We don't flash badges or look for extra perks. We're not what the media puts across," Reichardt said in an interview this week. "We're respectable people who want to give back to the community."

Reichardt is one of more than 50 volunteers who have worked at the airport in the last year. He recently noticed a woman who had become ill and made a call that helped her get emergency medical attention. He's also alerted deputies to people in the terminal who appear to be intoxicated or upset.

"The extra eyes and ears make it probably the safest airport in the country," said Sheriff's Lt. Tom Slayton, who oversees the volunteer program.

Concern about the badge revocation has prompted Hutchens to schedule a meeting this month with the volunteers. She said she wanted to let them know that she appreciated their service and intended to continue the program, but with a new name and no badges.

"This undeserved stigma is rooted in the program's past and is no longer accurate. However, the badges, which have become a lightning rod for criticism and mistrust, are its most visible legacy and serve to undermine your service and tarnish the reputation of the program," she said in her letter to the volunteers.

The volunteers also work at the Orange County Fair and offer such professional expertise as Web and graphic design. Many of the volunteers are pilots who provide air travel to deputies during investigations. Last month, volunteer Tim Reynolds piloted his own plane to carry two investigators to Juarez, Mexico, to rescue a 9-year-old Orange County boy who had been kidnapped by his father.

"The program had such a bad reputation under Carona, but the truth is it's extremely positive," said Sheriff's Capt. Brian Wilkerson. "The overwhelming majority of the people aren't upset that they're losing the badge."

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stuart.pfeifer@latimes.com

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