The Robert Bates Trial & Police Reserves: A Professionalism Perspective
Apr. 26, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — Reserve police officers. Many police departments use them for various functions; some depend on them to provide basic law enforcement services. They are called different things in different states, but they are all pretty much the same; part-time officers who have a different full-time job. Some of them get paid, most do not, and the government benefits from their service.
Robert Bates was a reserve deputy sheriff for the Tulsa County, Oklahoma Sheriff’s Office. Bates was assigned to the violent crimes task force that was to conduct a gun buy from a dangerous felon,[i] and which would then arrest him. The felon, Eric Harris, 44, had been convicted in the past of robbery with a dangerous weapon and escape, among other crimes. A task force assignment like that is normally highly sought after and normally highly competitive to get—so why did a 73-year-old reserve deputy get assigned to the task force?
To be blunt, politics. Bates was a reserve deputy at age 73, well past the age that most full-time officers retire. This was a game to him, a hobby. He was a wealthy donor to the sheriff’s campaign and the chairman of his last re-election committee. So he was given a badge and a gun, and put on a task force with much younger officers, for show.
Bates was not adequately trained. He had been a police officer for one year (1963-64), back in the day where police training consisted of handing the officer a badge and telling them to go arrest people. He had completed a total of 72 hours of the required 480 hours of training. This is from a TCSO Internal Affairs report showing that Bates received special treatment, after Sheriff Stanley Glanz had claimed that there was no special treatment.
Glanz subsequently resigned his office and has been charged by the District Attorney with two misdemeanors over the matter.
So on the day in question, Harris sold a gun to an undercover officer and then fled on foot. Harris was tackled and Bates came up to help take Harris into custody. He then drew his personally owned, unauthorized Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum and shot Harris one time in the back. Bates later claimed that he thought he was drawing a Taser. The DA didn’t buy the story and charged Bates with second degree manslaughter.[ii]
You can tell what the other officers on the task force thought of Bates from their testimony. Deputy Lance Ramsey, the deputy who planned the buy, said that he would not have shot Harris under the circumstances. Deputy Ricardo Vaca testified that Bates was sleeping about 5-10 minutes before the takedown, and that he was almost killed by the shot.
The Medical Examiner testified that Harris was killed by the gunshot, despite the defense team attempting to claim that the cause of death could have been cardiac arrest caused by his running from the police and methamphetamine intoxication. She stated that it was clear from the autopsy that the bullet hole in Harris caused his death.
Whether Bates is convicted isn’t as important as another issue: why do police departments use reserves? In Tulsa County, under former Sheriff Glanz, reserve deputy positions went to political supporters, wealthy donors who contributed to his campaign. Indeed, an SO spokesman commented on the fact that there were a number of wealthy contributors, despite not seeing what the problem could be.
The same thing has happened elsewhere. In Oakley, Michigan, it was disclosed that of 110 applicants for reserve positions, 42 were donors to the police department, and many of the applicants were wealthy individuals from nearby Detroit. Robert James Ritchie Jr., better known as Kid Rock, was a reserve police officer there, although no one ever remembers seeing him on patrol. One city trustee said that the police department had become “the grocery store for enhanced gun permits and badges.”
In Orange County, California, back in 2005, it was disclosed that the sheriff had deputized 86 friends, relatives, and contributors. None had required background investigations and many lacked training.
Some towns I know of in Texas have one full-time paid police officer, the chief. These towns have to use reserves if they are going to have a police force, because the town doesn’t have enough money to fund a real police department. Other than the chief, everyone else is an unpaid reserve who has to work 16 to 32 hours a month to keep their badge.[iii] All reserves in Texas have to complete the same amount of training as a regular officer, unlike most states.
There is a problem with the whole concept, though. In other professions, we don’t skimp on the training. A lawyer has to pass the bar and is held to the same standard whether he is a full-time lawyer or not. The same holds true for a medical doctor, or an accountant. We require teachers to be certified, and substitute teachers have to meet minimum requirements. We do not let partially trained people to do these jobs, because they are important and their mistakes have consequences. We don’t staff our hospital emergency rooms with volunteers.
But we allow 73-year-old insurance salesmen to donate large amounts of money and property to a sheriff, and put him on the street with a badge and a gun, to “play” cops and robbers. Do you really want some yahoo pulling over your son or daughter, your husband or wife? Someone who is just doing this as a hobby?
[i] All felons are prohibited from possessing firearms by federal law, and most states have similar laws.
[ii] Punishable by up to four years in prison.
[iii] Disclosure: When I was on a military leave of absence from my police job and on active duty in the Air Force, I kept my peace officer license active by working 12 to 16 hours a month at my department. I still had to meet all the training requirements as a regular officer.