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Unpaid Interns with Guns

It's become standard practice for police departments around the country to get volunteers to help patrol communities and enforce laws. Some of these unpaid positions are full-time—some of them even require the officers to carry guns. Does this sound...

by Charles Davis
Jan 14 2014, 8:10pm

Auxiliary officers, as volunteer NYPD cops are known, have some of the responsibilities of law enforcement officers but none of the pay.Photo via Flickr user André Gustavo Stumpf

In Oakland, California, the housing authority is looking for officers who can patrol its properties and “perform all the duties of a police officer,” including “drug elimination” and the serving of “evictions and other legal notices.” Applicants with experience in “the safe utilization of firearms” are encouraged to apply.

In Miramar, Florida, the local police are likewise searching for “reserve officers” to perform “the same uniform patrol duties as a full-time officer.” Like their full-time colleagues, these part-time cops will have “the same law enforcement power of arrest.”

In Wichita, Kansas, they are looking for someone to not only make arrests, but to take prisoners to jail as well as conduct “specialized investigations and raids.” The position “involves an element of personal danger,” so applications should have the “ability to accurately and effectively discharge a rifle, shotgun, and handgun with both left and right hands” and should also be able “to react quickly and calmly in emergencies; to record details about names, faces, and incidents quickly, clearly, and accurately.”

All these jobs are dangerous and involve carrying a deadly weapon. They entail giving a human being the power to detain another human being, and the benefit of the doubt if they should shoot one. And all the positions are unpaid.

In some cases, these unpaid officers are true volunteers: retired cops with some extra time on their hands. But half of police reserves, as these positions are called, are filled by people under 40 years old, and a quarter are under 30, according to a study reported in Police Chief magazine. So why would they work for free?

“People are looking to join the police department, and given our hiring freeze right now, they can’t,” Jose Hernandez, a spokesman for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal when the department launched a reserve police officer program last March. In essence, these are unpaid interns who are expected to fetch perps, not coffee. Though the officers receive much the same training as their paid colleagues, Hernandez told the paper that, because they only work two shifts a month, they don't have the same experience and thus are limited to patrolling with a full-time partner.

That's not always the case in other jurisdictions. In Valley Mills, Texas, unpaid reserve officers are expected to be in patrol cars alone. In Whitney, Texas, “Non-Paid Police Officer” is a full-time job, and those officers “shall be expected to complete the same duties as full-time officers.”

It's up to each department to decide how it uses reserves, or if they use them at all. In 2011, more than 2,100 departments chose to use volunteers, according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and that number has likely grown in the present age of austerity, as local police departments have tanks courtesy of grants from the federal government but don't have the means or desire to pay entry-level officers.

“During the past several years, departments have been faced with serious budget cuts and there is legitimate concern among full-time professional officers that budget cutters may turn to volunteers to reduce their public safety costs,” Rich Roberts, a spokesman for the International Union of Police Associations, told me. “This would be a disservice to the dedicated officers as well as to the public.”

Departments will never admit they are replacing paid employees with unpaid “volunteers,” but when these volunteers are performing the same tasks as full-time staff, it’s pretty obvious that, yes, they’re replacing paid employees. Maybe these towns don't have the budget to pay another cop at the moment, but when volunteers are willing to do what once was compensated work for free, getting the money to hire more paid employees tends not to be an employer's top priority.

And there are plenty of people desperate enough to work for free these days, whether the field is journalism or law enforcement.

“The downturned economy's increasing number of unemployed could potentially be a fruitful target group for a source of volunteers,” according to an article published in Police Chief magazine. “A number of events occur when one is unemployed,” the article says:

“An individual can experience the sense of losing direction because of the structure that a job brings to life. Lower self-esteem occurs because the individual is not being productive on a daily basis and, therefore, sees her- or himself as being less valuable. Much of social life occurs on the job or flows out of it. This changes drastically when the job is no longer there. Volunteering with the police can overcome this and prove beneficial to a police department.”

While some departments have only a handful of unemployed-turned-unpaid officers, others have dozens, or even more. The Oakland County Sheriff's Office has a 100-member reserve unit. Los Angeles has around 700 reserve officers. The New York Police Department has about 4,500, meaning around one in eight NYPD cops are unpaid. (NYPD auxiliary officers, unlike some departments’ volunteer cops, don’t carry firearms.)

Though individual departments may be underfunded, the problem isn’t that the US as a whole isn’t spending money on law enforcement. Despite the collapse of traditional morality and the rise of Nancy Grace, crime across the United States has been falling for decades. Between 1993 and 2010, the gun homicide rate dropped 49 percent, according to government data analyzed by the Pew Research Center. Overall, violent crime dropped 72 percent during that period.

In 2013, Detroit's homicide rate dropped 14 percent to the lowest point it's been in almost 20 years. Homicides in Los Angeles are at their lowest level since 1966. Last year, Chicago had the fewest murders it’s recorded since 1965.

Less crime should mean fewer cops and less money budgeted for fancy crime-fighting tools. However, spending on law enforcement has instead increased dramatically over the last two decades—that money has just been going toward military-grade equipment, not salaries for those using it.

While cops working for donuts might bring a smile to the face of your friendly neighborhood anarchist, the thought of a potentially embittered and inexperienced volunteer with a badge and a gun patrolling the streets and kicking poor tenants out of their homes is not terribly comforting. Police budgets should be slashed—this means slowing down the war on drugs, not compromising public safety—but slashing those budgets is only a victory if it means fewer people on the streets empowered to carry guns and kill people with impunity, whether they’re paid law enforcement or unpaid interns or George Zimmerman. We should work toward less cops, yes—but fewer assholes with badges too.

Charles Davis is a writer and producer in Los Angeles. His work has been published by outlets including Al Jazeera, the New Inquiry, and Salon.