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The Benefits of Reserve Detectives

Over the years many police agencies have realized the benefit of having reserve or auxiliary police officers. There just aren’t any police agencies that would like to have a reduction in personnel and budget. Everyone has to face how to do more with less. However, most of these auxiliary officers are assigned to the patrol division and have provided assistance in that area only. It could be said with today’s patrol demands that patrol requires the most support.

Another facet of law enforcement could benefit from reserve officers, an area that often goes unnoticed but still has a great deal of responsibility. This secondary area is the detective or investigations unit of the department. These men and women of the detective bureau work in terms of hours and days, whereas most officers work in terms of seconds and minutes. A patrol officer’s involvement in a case may only last a few minutes, but the fallout can last for months. One agency has recently created a branch of auxiliary service to specifically lend aid to the unsung heroes of the policing world, the detectives.

Over the past few years, the North Vernon, IN Police has conducted a study of the detective needs and how to best serve them. In the course of this study, many changes were made from scheduling, to time management, to ergonomics and so forth. Although these provided a quick fix, the recurring thought was that the detectives needed more manpower.

This is an issue for almost every aspect of law enforcement, but it has rarely been addressed for the detectives. Many agencies have relied on reserve police officers for years to assist patrol functions, but the connection had never been made that the detectives could aid from this assistance, as well. Then the “light-bulb” moment, “How about reserve detectives?”

First thing’s first, to implement this program, there must be some groundwork in place. The unit must be established in accordance with state law. The local governing authority must also create an ordinance that will support the program. And, of course, there must be a department standard operating procedure that will detail the ins and outs of the program. Once those three daunting tasks have been accomplished, the department can move forward. Luckily, the test department already had these items in place and only had to include a small addition to the department policy.

Once the foundation was in place, there was a great deal of time spent on the type of personalities that could fit the bill. Police work is often sold on the exciting adrenaline-filled moments that happen during the course of a day. How would a department sell detective work to volunteers? After all, most volunteers have watched “COPS” and want to drive fast and chase the bad guys.

Ah, but times are changing. Hollywood has made a very visible change in what a “police drama” entails. TV shows like “CSI,” “Law and Order” and others have become successful because of the overwhelming intrigue in the high-tech end of law enforcement.

Although these TV shows are mostly fictional, they are still creating newfound interest in law enforcement. It is becoming an easier sell to tell someone that they may have the opportunity to work with detectives in forensics and with the crime lab. There is now an opportunity to mention the truth that detective work is very cerebral and that it is an educated and specialized division.

It is best for the department to specifically address the need for people interested in detective work during the recruitment process. Some people just aren’t built for it and need to be weeded out early on in the hiring process. Most detectives were at one time patrol officers, and it is commonly thought of as a step-up for an officer to go into the detective division. But in this case, new hires will not have the years of experience to fall back on and must have a specific aptitude for detective work before they are hired.

During the section process, those in charge of hiring should be looking for and addressing a short list of personality traits that would make for an ideal reserve detective; these include: a hard-working person who likes intrigue and mystery; a person who is into photography and computers; the type of person who wants to have a hand in putting the puzzle together; a person who understands logic and reasoning; and most important, someone willing to take direction.

So the problem has been identified, foundations have been set, and a prospective personality type has been selected. The question that remains is, “What will they do when they get here?” The department took a long look at potential job functions. During this stage, two issues were always at the forefront of conversation, these people are volunteering, and their time will be very limited.

The order was sent down for the detectives to come up with tasks that could be completed start to finish in eight hours or less. Further, the detectives were advised to come up with a list that would not take anything more than in-house training to master. It was amazing how many things the detectives could come up with.

The reserve detectives’ role will expand once the new hires shows up for work and their specific talents are truly identified. For example, if a person was hired with an exceptional understanding of computing, his talents could be exploited to the fullest.

Another issue concerns their working assignment. Should they be scheduled to work during a specific time? The test department did not consider this as available option. After all these men and women will give up their hard-earned free time to aide in a demanding “hobby.” The idea was to keep it loose and request specific time, but not to demand time. The reserve detectives were also willing to be on call and available for particularly complex or lengthy investigations.

A significant issue that must be decided for the project to prosper concerns if the detective assistants should be sworn or civilian employees. As mentioned earlier, if there is no state law to support reserve officers, an agency must go with civilian employees. At the test agency, the decision was made to start slow and go with one of each. This gave the department some options and time to decide on which direction to go.

Obviously, it is much quicker to hire a non-sworn person. This person was issued an I.D. card that detailed his affiliation with the department. The further advantage was that the person was able to start almost immediately. The second direction was to hire a sworn reserve detective. This person was hired through a selection progress and was trained in accordance with regulations set forth by state law.

Initially, it appears that the sworn reserve detective is the most flexible and can do tasks that a non-sworn person just can’t do. However, the training that will be required of a sworn reserve may be more than some agencies can handle. In that case, a non-sworn person would be a good fit. In either case, there will be an initial down time, while training occurs.

For the most part, all training is done in house. However, that does not mean that an administration could not send the newly hired reserve off to several basic level crime-scene, evidence and interview classes. After all, the reserve is coming into the department and providing a very valuable service at little to no cost. Several hundred dollars spent here and there will come back to the department in an immeasurable amount.

Although the program is working and successful, there are some potential problem areas that have to be addressed early on to prevent negative feedback. First, the department must be aware that the reserve detectives are interactive in some of the most sensitive areas of law enforcement. There ability and experience level will be highly scrutinized during court proceedings. With that in mind, it is a best practice, for the reserve detectives to work under the direct guidance and supervision of a sworn detective. There should be very clear channels of communication that is heavy on documentation of activity.

Second, the time commitment has to be addressed. Many of these volunteers cannot live at the department. There is a very delicate balance of assigning these detectives cases that can be handled quickly, while still engaging them enough to keep them coming back.

Third, the entire department has to buy in to the vision. Many on the department will view the reserves as some type of replacement for full-time personnel. The reserve officers are only acquired to enhance the current situation and are never intended to replace existing or future full-time officers. This must be not only clear to the department personnel but also to the governing body at budget time.

With this project under way for more than a year, it has become clear just how beneficial this program was to a small department. The burden that has been lifted by the detectives is tremendous. It is the combination of all the small time-saving functions that the reserve detectives do that provides for a large amount of available time for the full-time detectives.

This frees up time for the actual investigation and performance of the vital interviews. The overall atmosphere and moral have improved. Detectives who were completely overworked are beginning to enjoy the job much more. Productivity has also had a marked increase. Cases that had been pushed to the side have now been re-examined and completed. The detectives are experiencing much more job satisfaction.

This program is among a few of the rare opportunities in law enforcement to come up with a “win-win” plan. Although this program was designed around helping the detective division, it didn’t take long to realize the unintended benefit. The people who were being hired became much more than personal secretaries to the detectives. They became true contributors to the law enforcement community.

The department is able to accomplish more with less, and another opening is created for people interested in law enforcement. Many people want to help their local police agencies, but they don’t necessarily want to come face to face with a “bad guy” or drive around for hours on end waiting for the radio to sound off. This form of reserve program gives them that chance.

James Webster is chief of the North Vernon, IN Police Department. He has 14 years with the department. He can be reached at

Duties for Reserve Detectives

  • Download and catalog all digital photography
  • Assist with property room management
  • Organize evidence collection equipoment and suppliles
  • Deliver and retrieve documents from other government agencies
  • Deliver and retrieve documents from crime victims
  • Research disposition of cases to aid in the destruction or release of seized property
  • Assist with evidence collection
  • Assist with case investigation
  • Make duplicate audio and video recordings for prosecution
  • Assist with copying, researching, and filing
  • Interview victims
  • Take notes and serve as a "gofer" at crime scenes
  • Assist the regular detectives at major crime scenes.

Published in Law and Order, Feb 2008

Rating : 10.0

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Interesting read

Posted on : Aug 30 at 10:18 AM By Rebecca Douglas

I came across your article in ProQuest as I was researching for a paper - I am a 43 year old CJ student looking to graduate next year. I would love to know how many agencies in the US have implemented Reserve Detectives. Would love to view the comments on this article as well.

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