By Chip DeBlock
I write this article with caution, as it’s a hot topic that’s sure to generate some passionate debate and controversy. I do not believe in knee-jerk reactions concerning this subject, but I also believe in telling it like it is which is something I believe most cops can appreciate.
Everyone reading this should be familiar with 73-year-old former Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office Reserve Deputy Robert Bates who mistook his handgun for his Taser.1 On 04/02/15 Bates mistakenly shot and killed unarmed 44-year-old Eric Harris. Bates turned himself in on 04/14/15 and was charged with 2nd degree manslaughter. In addition to being an insurance executive, Bates also worked as a police officer from 1964 – 1965.2 Although some are sensationalizing the fact that Bates is white and Harris was black, I do not believe this is a race issue and it certainly has no bearing as far as this article is concerned.
Some sources equate the increase of reserve officers to badges being for sale.3 The focus of this article, however, is twofold:
- Is there an inherent problem with departments using reserve officers?
- At what point, if ever, does age become a factor in police work?
Of course, if there are legitimate issues with both reserve officers and aging officers, those meeting both criteria would be even more hazardous to the profession.
According to the FUSION.NET article3, the Albuquerque Police Department suspended their reserve program after a reserve officer was making illegal arrests while getting paid overtime. In another case a plain clothes reserve officer was killed by a uniformed police officer because he was mistaken as an armed pedestrian. Yet in another, a 62 year old reservist accidentally shot himself in the hip while at City Hall. According to the Washington Post, the Reserve Police Officers Association chronicles more than 200 reserve officers as having died on the job. They also point out where reservists undergo only 40 hours of training compared to an average of 761 hours that’s required of real police officers by the Bureau of Justice and Statistics. As far as age, “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…”2
The U.S. Department of Justice has a maximum entry age of 36 in order to become a LEO and a mandatory retirement age of 57 (or when they complete 20 years of LEO service if over the age of 57). All this because they want “to maintain a young and vigorous workforce in physically arduous Law Enforcement Officer (LEO) positions…”4
According to the 2013 FBI Statistics on Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted5, 76 LEOs were killed in the line-of-duty (27 from felonies and 49 from accidents). The average age of officers feloniously killed and accidentally killed was 39 years and 41 years respectfully. While this data doesn’t prove that older LEOs are more susceptible to being killed in the line-of-duty, it doesn’t disprove it either.
Taking all this information into consideration after retiring with 30 years on the job, I feel that I have some insight on the topic. I began my law enforcement career fresh out of college at the age of 21 and I retired at 51. Throughout my career I’ve had the opportunity to work with both young and old LEOs alike including many reserve officers. Unfortunately the stories I read while researching for this article failed to distinguish between different types or levels of reserve officers. Many seasoned LEOs, upon retiring, become reserve officers (i.e. Reserve One) and maintain their law enforcement certification. Their experience is invaluable and they can be a huge asset to an agency. Not only do they have years of training as an active LEO but they normally must maintain department standards and training. In comparison, civilians who become reserve officers (Reserve Two) are of a different type and do not have the same level of training. They also typically do not enjoy arrest powers unless working with an active LEO or a Reserve One equivalent.
Conclusion: Law enforcement is a young man’s game and, while you get older, the bad guys are still 18 and 20 year’s old. I still felt great at 51 when I retired, but there is no denying that age in police work diminishes you physically and mentally. You’re not as fast as you used to be, you are more prone to injury, your reflexes are slower, you don’t process things as quickly and your hands are not as steady. Truth be told, I don’t like to see active officers carrying a gun into their 60s. For reserve officers working the likes of off-duty jobs, traffic assignments and special events I am comfortable with some leniency on the age. I believe the rest will sort itself out with proper training and rigorous physical fitness requirements for both active and reserve officers. If a LEO’s mental state is in question, then a fitness for duty evaluation would be in order. In the case of the 73 year old Tulsa County reserve deputy who mistakenly shot and killed a suspect with his handgun instead of his Taser, I do not have all the facts in that case. However, I do have reservations about him working in an operational capacity and questions about the level of training he received and his proficiency level.
Disclaimer: This article is not legal advice and does not contain all the information on this topic including the applicable statutes. The author’s personal viewpoints, interpretations and opinions are contained within. Anyone seeking to take action on this topic or needing more information should consult with an attorney, reference applicable statutes and conduct their own research.
1 The Washington Post – Tulsa reserve deputy who fatally mistook gun for a Taser turns himself in – by Lindsey Bever and Sarah Larimer – April 14, 2015: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/04/13/the-73-year-old-reserve-cop-who-mistook-his-gun-for-a-taser/
2 Tulsa World – Sheriff’s Office: Reserve deputy who fired fatal shot was among ‘lots of’ wealthy donors in reserve program – by Dylan Goforth – April 7, 2015: http://www.tulsaworld.com/newshomepage1/sheriff-s-office-reserve-deputy-who-fired-fatal-shot-was/article_3d1f3fe7-43cd-5fa1-9e8c-d8b3aefe2504.html
3 Fusion – BADGES FOR SALE – When a cop isn’t a cop: The troubling rise of reserve officers – by Daniel Rivero – April 15, 2015: http://fusion.net/story/120260/when-a-cop-isnt-a-cop-the-troubling-rise-of-reserve-officers/
4 The United States Department of Justice – Justice Management Division – Human Resources – Policy: http://www.justice.gov/jmd/hr-order-doj12001-part-1-employment-1
5 The FBI Federal Bureau of Investigation – National Press Releases – FBI Releases 2013 Statistics on Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted – November 24, 2014: http://www.fbi.gov/news/pressrel/press-releases/fbi-releases-2013-statistics-on-law-enforcement-officers-killed-and-assaulted