What do rapper Kid Rock, basketball legend Shaquille O'Neal, and Hollywood one-man-army Steven Seagal have in common, apart from their striking goatees? They're among a growing number of wealthy celebrities, entrepreneurs, and executives signing up for the chance to tote real badges and guns as deputy reservists at local police departments around the country.
Would you trust any one of them to defend your rights or to follow proper protocol in a life or death situation? These are questions that are once again being asked in recent weeks after a white millionaire insurance executive attached to the reserve contingent of Tulsa County Sheriff's Office fatally shot an unarmed black suspect in Oklahoma, claiming to mistake his firearm for a Taser.
Robert Bates, 73, who has been charged with the second-degree manslaughter of Eric Harris, 44, during an undercover operation on April 2, was a reservist deputy serving on the sheriff's Violent Crime Task Force. He had reportedly paid handsomely for the privilege, donating cars and thousands of dollars in other equipment to the department since joining in 2007.
In a video of the fatal shooting, Bates, who says he mistakenly fired his service weapon instead of his stun gun, can be heard crying, "I shot him! I'm sorry!" The insurance company owner has since been released on $25,000 bail and told CNN on Friday that he regrets the incident, but said, "It can happen to anyone."
In the interview, Bates, a longtime friend and former campaign donor to Tulsa's sheriff, Stanley Glanz, also denied allegations that he did not complete the required 480 hours of training and firearms certification that qualified him to serve as an advanced reservist — the highest rank among Tulsa's auxiliary forces — that essentially allowed him to carry out the same duties as any regular deputy.
The sheriff's department on Friday deflected the same allegations unnamed sources made to the Tulsa World newspaper, saying it had yet to locate Bates's training records, but that the sheriff has the right to waive any department requirements and policies, and there was a possibility that this occurred in this instance.
"The media outlet that is putting this information out is using unconfirmed and unidentified sources and also relying on anonymity," said Major Shannon Clark, spokesman for the Tulsa County Sheriff's Office. "We don't respond to rumor."
The case appears to highlight the disquieting precept that money really can buy anything, including the right to allegedly sidestep mandatory law enforcement training at the potential risk of human life. It could not have come at a worse time, as departments around the country weather fierce criticism over systemic and pervasive policing culture that incubates perceptions among its police officers that racial bias and excessive use of force is acceptable and even sanctioned.
Nationwide protests that erupted in the aftermath of several police killings of several unarmed black men—including Ferguson, Missouri, teen Michael Brown; New Yorker Eric Garner; and, most recently, Walter Scott in South Carolina — have prompted several internal police probes and inquiries by the US Justice Department that have revealed many more troubling instances of police abuse of power. Department policies surrounding the recruitment and deployment of armed volunteer reservists or auxiliary forces could now be a new focus of such reports, as demonstrations and a nationwide movement calling for more accountability continue to grow.
Robert James Ritchie, a country, hip-hop, and rap musician better known by his stage name Kid Rock, is one such police reservist, serving for the rural Michigan town of Oakley — a village of just 300 residents, but boasting an officer count of some 150. Many, like Kid Rock, serve on the department's reserve forces.
Kid Rock's name appeared alongside those of a Miami Dolphins football player, a prominent local doctor, and many others on a list of police reservists released under an open-records request this week. The discovery of the disproportionate number of officers in the village came after more than two years of litigation involving the owners of the Family Tavern in Oakley, who allegedly experienced harassment from a large contingent of seemingly secret or undercover officers in the town.
The attorney for Family Tavern, Philip Ellison, who has a copy of the reservist list but is not permitted to reveal it under court order, told VICE News there was an unexpectedly large overlap between the list of donors to the village and those who applied to the reservist force. Almost half the reservists also contributed nearly $183,000 in donations to Oakley between 2009 and 2014. It is not clear whether Kid Rock fell under this category, he said.
Although every Oakley reservist position is held on a volunteer basis, the perks of the job include permission to open-carry firearms in places where they are usually prohibited in Michigan. Those areas, including bars, schools, and stadiums, typically don't allow carriers to bring guns on premises, even if they already have a concealed weapons permit. Police officers and reservists on the other hand can openly carry weapons, even off-duty, in these and other spaces.
"It's our belief that the members of this reserve unit became part of this program simply for the benefits of this non-restricted gun license in Michigan," Ellison said. "But we don't know that to be a fact because no reservist has come out one way or the other explaining why they applied to be part of this program."
Many of Oakley's reservists named in the list don't even live in the tiny one-mile-by-one-mile village, Ellison said. Some were actually found to be residing in Detroit, up to a two-hours drive away. Kid Rock himself lives at least an hour's drive away in a property near Clarkson, as well as owning a house in Nashville, Tennessee.
"There's been nothing from the attorney general on how this has been allowed to happen," how people can essentially "pay to play" cop, Ellison said. "What rights do these reservists have, why are they here, who are they, and why are they basically storm-trooping this local family-run business?"
The Michigan Attorney General's office and Oakley Police Chief Robert Reznick did not immediately respond to VICE News' separate requests for comment on Friday.
Other cities and states across America boast thousands of reservists in their auxiliary or so-called "special" police forces. They range in function, size, and capability, with some paid and others enlisting on a purely volunteer basis. Many are able to make arrests and carry a range of weapons.
In New York, for example, which has some 4,500 auxiliary members of the force, reservist officers sport essentially the same uniform as regular officers, but are unpaid and are only armed with a wooden baton. Some states require reservists to also train as state-certified officers, but in other areas the rules are more lax, leading to concerns that these positions can be abused or mishandled, and lead to more botched arrests and fatalities like in Oklahoma this month.
"Most prisons have less guard-to-prisoner rates than reservists-to-residents in this town," Ellison said of the village. "Frankly with reservists going in and storming in to businesses under some kind of quasi police authority, Oakley could have very easily been Oklahoma."
Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields