A 73-year-old reserve deputy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, has been charged with manslaughter after he mistook his gun for a Taser and shot a suspect dead during a botched sting operation.
In itself, that headline is both troubling and tragic. But when it became public that Robert Bates, the reserve officer, had gained that post after donating thousands of dollars in equipment to the police department, as well as to the sheriff's reelection campaign in 2012, questions arise about the integrity of reserve programs, not only in Tulsa, but around the country.
Turns out reserve programs are being used as a backstop for departments with recruitment issues, and in some cases the less-trained reserves have made serious mistakes while moonlighting as an officer of the law.
Take the police department in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The department, which is in a class of its own for use of force issues, is in the midst of a recruitment crisis, leading to a chronically understaffed department. Out of 1,000 officers the department is authorized to employ, only 874 are active, with an estimated 404 patrolling the streets, according to a recent report by the Albuquerque Journal.
As a result, the department's entire crime scene forensics work will soon be taken over by civilians, reported the paper, so that the 12 officers who are on that unit can go back on patrol. Even the department's bomb squad has been relying on civilians to do the job at least one day every week.
A police association representative told the paper that about 160 active officers will become eligible for retirement this year, only exacerbating the crisis and the department's use of reserve officers, who receive less training than full duty officers.
In 2009, the department was forced to suspend its reserve program after it was discovered that a reserve officer was making illegal arrests and getting paid overtime to do so. Several women whom he arrested for prostitution served six months or more in prison for the illegal arrests, cases which the Albuquerque public defender's office called "clearly fraud perpetrated against the court."
Efforts to ask the Albuquerque Police Department how the reserve program had been changed or reformed since that suspension were not immediately answered.
“We are [in] crisis mode now, but it will only escalate,” Stephanie Lopez, president of the Albuquerque Police Officers’ Association told the Albuquerque Journal. The force has fewer officers on payroll than it has had since 2001.
In smaller towns like Oakley, Michigan, there have been as many as 100 reserve officers at a given time, even though the town only has about 300 residents. Police chief Robert Reznick started bulking up the reserve force after he took office in 2008—for a fee. Reservist would "pay about about $1,200 for a uniform, bullet-proof vest and gun, and some make additional donations to the police department," in order to become reserve officers, reported Vocativ. Reservists had to undergo 40 hours of training and had to put in a minimum of eight hours of service a month.
According to the latest numbers from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, police officer training requires an average of about 761 hours, or about 19 weeks time.
After making payments and meeting the training criteria, donors would get a police badge, and the right to carry a gun almost anywhere in the state, including places in which doing so is off limits to the public, like casinos, schools, and bars.
Reznick credits the popular reserve program with being a revenue generator for the small town, telling Vocativ: "Without the money from the police department, that town would not be running.”
But different state oversight bodies have launched investigations into how the department was collecting and spending money through the program. Last month, the department effectively shut down after it was unable to get insurance, due to the ongoing investigations. Two bills in the state legislature would put more oversight onto similar programs, which are common in Michigan.
There are also serious risks that come with taking a job as a reserve officer, which requires less training than a regular patrol. The Reserve Police Officers Association lists over 200 reservists who have died on the job, reported the Washington Post. In one Los Angeles case from 2005, a plain clothes reserve officer was killed by a uniformed officer after being mistaken for an armed pedestrian at the scene of a crime.
Then there are the incidents where reservists have shot suspects. In 2012, a reserve officer shot and killed a Tennessee man after a traffic stop turned into a foot chase. The reservist was cleared of any wrongdoing in that case.
A separate case out of Warren, Michigan, from 2013 saw a reserve officer accidentally shooting himself in the hip while inside City Hall. That man was 62 years old when he shot himself, which is pretty much past the prime for a police officer.
Many departments won’t even hire anyone older than 40 years old, and mandatory retirement ages for officers have been set as low as 50 in Massachusetts, and as high as 70 in Chicago, which passed a new ordinance on Tuesday.
Which brings us back to the question: why was a 73-year-old reserve officer in Tulsa, Oklahoma, assisting in a sting operation that went so tragically wrong?
One clue might be in the words of Tulsa County Sheriff Stanley Glanz, who said he regards Bates as a longtime friend.
"I am 72 years old, and I think I am still active," the sheriff said in an interview with Tulsa World.
That interview, as described by the paper, ended with Glanz pulling out a phone and showing a picture of himself and Bates holding up a fish they caught at a local lake.
"Bob and I both love to fish," Glanz said. "Is it wrong to have a friend?"
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.