Policing and law enforcement organizations in the United States currently rely on a range of unpaid volunteers who assist with various tasks and operations. The use of volunteers by U.S. police agencies is a trend that appears to be increasing.
Police Volunteers Defined
Since the mid-1840s (in the United States), policing has predominantly been viewed as a vocation, best conducted by paid employees of police organizations (Klockars 1985). Police employees can be divided into two groups: sworn officers, who have arrest powers, and civilian employees who do not have arrest powers. Police volunteers represent a category of people who assist the police in performing police tasks but are not paid for their efforts and are thus not employees. Police volunteers take a variety of forms, so it helps to think in terms of how long the volunteer’s relationship with the police agency lasts, and how organizationally involved the volunteer becomes. (For example, does the volunteer work in a police station, or is he or she located solely in the community while helping? Does the volunteer have contact with a number of police employees or only one or a few?) It is possible to array volunteers along a continuum representing the length and density of the voluntary relationship. This continuum represents the formality of the volunteer’s relationship with the police agency and it is a useful device for thinking about police volunteers.
At one end of this formality continuum are people who briefly assist a police officer, for example, by helping chase a suspect or providing a little information to an officer. Such an individual’s length of volunteering is short lived and they do not have contact with many officers. Further along the continuum are informants, who generally have more frequent contacts with the police, but do not frequent police facilities (such as police stations), their volunteer activities are not usually acknowledged by the agency, and they usually have contact with a limited number of employees. Still further along the continuum are citizens who become involved in longer term volunteer activities, such as neighborhood watch, citizen’s patrols, or regularly scheduled police-community meetings associated with community policing. Finally, at the other end of the continuum are volunteers who regularly perform police-like tasks on a scheduled basis for the police agency (such as unpaid reserve police officers). In many instances the only difference between this last category of volunteer and regular police employees is that these volunteers are not paid.
This entry will concentrate on the more formal examples of police volunteers outlined above. The less formal examples of police volunteers such as serving as an informant or briefly assisting a police officer will not be covered here.
Police Volunteers Described
Perhaps the most widely known police volunteer program is Neighborhood Crime Watch, which is loosely organized by the National Crime Prevention Council. Crime watch programs are relatively ephemeral programs that involve community residents in watching out for crimes in their neighborhoods. If residents see a crime or suspicious activity, they are supposed to call the local police. Some versions of crime watch use citizens to patrol their neighborhoods, sometimes with radios or whistles. Crime watch participants are supposed to alert their local police and are forbidden from taking any actions on their own. There are no accurate estimates of the number of these watch programs although estimates run into the ”tens of thousands” (Lab 2004, 62). Likewise, there are no accurate estimates on the number of participants, because many of these watch programs are relatively short-lived organizations with very fluid memberships. The number of watch programs appears to be increasing, however (Rosenbaum, Lurigio, and Davis 1998). See Lab (2004, chap. 4) for a full discussion of neighborhood crime prevention programs.
Some police agencies use volunteers to handle more formal police tasks. In some agencies volunteers serve as reserve police officers who are trained, wear uniforms, and patrol in marked police cars. Some states and agencies permit these volunteer reserves to carry a firearm and make arrests; other states and agencies do not (Hilal 2004). Other agencies, such as one in Santa Ana, California, use volunteers to patrol in marked cars, but they are distinguishable from regular patrol officers, usually by the type of uniform they wear and their title (for example, in Santa Ana they are called police service officers), and they do not respond to emergency calls (Skolnick and Bayley 1986). Older volunteers in Concord, California, and San Diego, California, patrol the community in marked cars while responding to non-emergency calls such as assisting disabled motorists, taking crime reports at the scene of cold calls, and conducting vacation checks of homes (King 2005).
Some police agencies (such as those in Detroit, Michigan; San Diego, California; and Lowell, Massachusetts) use volunteers as greeters or receptionists at police substations, where the volunteers assist citizen “walk-ins.” Volunteers often recontact victims and witnesses, take statements, and generally assist police officers with clerical duties. Some agencies use volunteers for the special skills they bring to that agency. In many cases volunteers can bring a wealth of skills and experience that would be hard to find in a police officer or civilian employee. For example, in order to deal with its sizable Spanish-speaking population, the Colorado Springs (Colorado) Police Department uses bilingual volunteers to serve as interpreters. This arrangement is useful, because the agency can enlist the skills of bilingual individuals as needed, without hiring them. Concord, California, also staffs its chaplain’s program with volunteers and relies on volunteers to produce the department’s television show. Police agencies have also used volunteers to perform technical tasks, such as computer support, equipment maintenance, and data entry, and to assist crime victims.
An agency considering the use of volunteers should plan carefully. Some police agencies employ a paid volunteer coordinator. Agencies should also consider some type of training or orientation for their volunteers and should conduct a basic background check on possible volunteers, especially volunteers who will have more formal relationships with the agency and/or access to sensitive information (King 2005). Finally, agencies should monitor the relationships between paid employees (both sworn officers and civilian employees) and volunteers. There are significant differences between employees and volunteers in terms of status and power, and the agency should ensure that these differences do not become dysfunctional for the organization. For example, patrol officers may initially resent the use of volunteers for basic, nonemergency patrol duties and management should ensure that officers and volunteers cooperate.
See also: Community Attitudes toward the Police; Community Watch Programs; Costs of Police Services; Neighborhood Watch
- Hilal, Susan M. 2004. Volunteer police reserve officers: An identity theory perspective. D. diss. South Dakota State University.
- King, William R. 2005. Civilianization in Implementing community policing: Lessons from twelve agencies, Edward R. Maguire and William Wells, chap. 17. Washington, DC: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.
- Klockars, Carl. 1985. The idea of police. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
- Lab, Steven P. 2004. Crime prevention: Approaches, practices and evaluations. 5th ed. Cincinnati, OH: Anderson Publishing Company.
- Rosenbaum, Dennis, A. J. Lurigio, and R. C. Davis. 1998. The prevention of crime: Social and situational strategies. Belmont, CA: West/Wadsworth.
- Skolnick, Jerome, and David Bayley. 1986. The new blue line: Police innovation in six cities.New York: The Free Press.