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Tapping a new resource

INDEPENDENCE -- George Lopez said he supposes you could categorize his work with the Independence Police Department "a hobby."

Reserve police officers Michael Lauderback, left, and Dave Smith talk with a resident about dog licensing Sunday.

Photo by Pete Strong

Reserve police officers Michael Lauderback, left, and Dave Smith talk with a resident about dog licensing Sunday.

January 17, 2012

INDEPENDENCE -- George Lopez said he supposes you could categorize his work with the Independence Police Department "a hobby."

Lopez holds a day job with the Oregon Department of Employment. He's also been a reserve officer for the last two years.

"Law enforcement was always something that's interested me," said Lopez, who put in a 10-hour shift this past Saturday and will ride as a side-partner this weekend.

The 27-year-old Independence resident said he wants to become a police officer, though openings that wouldn't force him to uproot his family are scarce.

He said he's content to volunteer in the meantime. That's good for Independence's reserve program, which has seen its numbers go through peaks and valleys.

Right now, it's at a peak, said Police Chief Vern Wells. His current reserve force of 15 is more than he's had in six years. And it's prompted him to experiment with the program.

He's tasked volunteers with special, non-emergency assignments that would normally be shouldered by his regular personnel in order to lighten the load for patrol and crime responses.

Sergeants, for example, typically plan routes and traffic control for the city's holiday parade in December. A reserve coordinated it this time.

"I've had reserves checking in with people who haven't responded to our requests for renewing dog licenses," Wells said. "We haven't gotten to that in three years with normal patrol.

"This could all be back soon to three or four reserves in a few years," Wells added. "I hate to miss out on an opportunity (to use) a resource while we have one."

Volunteer officers are key for police agencies, but the trend in recent years for most reserve programs, including local ones, has been declining numbers.

Independence Reserve Police Officers Aaron Mollahan, far left, and Mike Beyer keep watch over the Night Court dance at Talmadge Middle School Saturday Night.

Photo by Pete Strong

Independence Reserve Police Officers Aaron Mollahan, far left, and Mike Beyer keep watch over the Night Court dance at Talmadge Middle School Saturday Night.

Reasons vary, though leaders within Polk County's law enforcement community all mention the constantly stiffer training requirements as a barrier to many considering signing up.

A volunteer must complete 300 hours through Mid-Valley Reserve Training Academy during a six-month stretch just to become a reserve. The curriculum is similar to what one might go through with the Oregon Police Academy.

"When I first started as a reserve in 1973, they handed me a badge and a gun and said, `here you go,'" Polk County Sheriff Bob Wolfe said.

The sheriff's office has 19 reserves who handle a broad spectrum of duties, including running Polk's marine patrol unit on the Willamette River.

"Now, before a reserve can even get in the car with us, they have to start training," Wolfe said.

Screening and criminal history checks are also more rigid; out of 30 applications reserved by the sheriff's office during this past year, only two were selected to go through the MVRT academy.

Expense for training and gear -- it can total $1,000 to outfit an officer from scratch -- and the supervision of a volunteer force are also factors.

"You're training reserves and letting them ride with you, and at some point you overwhelm the regular officers and resources you have," said Dallas Police Chief John Teague. "I like to keep about six (reserves)."

Most municipal police tend to use reserves, when not shadowing a police officer, to event details. The more experienced the officer, the greater the responsibilities. A solo reserve is nearly equivalent to a regular officer, said Monmouth Police Chief Darrell Tallan.

Mollahan passes a basketball back to seventh-grader Kyle O

Photo by Pete Strong

Mollahan passes a basketball back to seventh-grader Kyle O'Dell at Night Court. The supervisory role gives officers a chance for positive interaction with teens.

"But most don't get to that level," Tallan said. "For us, most are WOU students who graduate and move away."

The typical volunteer is restricted from doing patrols on his or her own or handling emergency calls alone -- because of experience and union contract issues.

"There's a huge liability to put a reserve officer out there unless they're trained," Tallan said. "And for being able to handle what may occur on their shift."

Wells said he considered abandoning his reserve program six years ago when he had only two active reserves. A resurgence for his department in the past three years might have been spurred by the recession.

"We have an unusually large and professional group," he said. "But for the economy, they would probably have law enforcement jobs ... nobody's hiring."

Lopez said he and some of his reserve peers stay watchful for openings. Others just like volunteering, he added.

"If somebody told me I couldn't go full time, I would continue being a reserve just because I enjoy it," he said.

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