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Police Reserve Officers: Essential in Today’s Economy and an Opportunity to Increase Diversity in the Law Enforcement Profession

By Susan M. Hilal, PhD, Associate Professor, Metropolitan State University School of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, Brooklyn Park, Minnesota; and David P. Olson, PhD, Community Coach, Horizons II Community Development Project Cooperative Extension Service, Brookings, South Dakota

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ith resources shrinking and demands for services either staying the same or increasing, police departments are in a difficult position. Police departments have always relied on volunteers to help offset their costs, provide more resources to the community, and enhance relationships between the community and law enforcement. Since 9/11 and with the current economic downturn, these volunteers are an even more essential component of any law enforcement agency. Agencies utilize volunteers in many different capacities, such as reserve officers, explorers, neighborhood watch captains, victim advocates, interpreters, computer specialists, and community leaders for preparedness. Although all volunteers contribute to the police organization and deserve special attention, the main focus of this article is on the volunteer reserve officer.

A reserve officer, or an auxiliary officer according to some agencies, is generally defined as an unpaid, uniformed civilian volunteer who is trained to perform many of the noncriminal-related functions of a police officer.1 They are often referred to as “the eyes and ears” of the department and provide a uniformed presence. However, for all practical purposes, to the general public they often appear to be regular police officers.

The scope and activity of what police reserves do; how they are structured; the amount of training they receive; the hiring practices associated with them; and whether or not they carry firearms, baton, and/or pepper spray is dictated by state statute and department policy and practices. Beyond the general information provided on a department’s web pages, this information and other related topics are not readily available. In fact, the literature available on reserve officers, especially the academic literature, is quite scarce. Most of the articles published regarding police reserve officers are descriptive accounts of the activities in which they engage, their value to police departments, and examples of volunteer police programs. Only a handful of articles exist that have gone beyond this descriptive account to tap into some of the more theoretical explanations for why volunteers choose to volunteer. This question is of particular significance, especially as agencies may need to actively recruit volunteers into the reserves.

Unemployed as a Source of Police Reservists

The downturned economy’s increasing number of unemployed could potentially be a fruitful target group for a source of volunteers. A number of events occur when one is unemployed. 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. For the unemployed, working as a reserve officer could provide productive structured activities, new levels of training, social contacts, and opportunities to explore a new career path. Police departments also could benefit by receiving assistance in delivering their noncriminal functions and increasing the number of community members who have a better understanding of the duties and pressures of police work. Increased volunteer participation would allow departments to observe potential candidates in real-life situations in consideration for regular officer positions before the interview process.

It is important to note that a person who is willing to volunteer with the police is not necessarily the same type of person who volunteers as a coach for Little League or who provides meals to the elderly. Police reserve officers are indeed different, and this difference can be illustrated when comparing these types of volunteers to those who volunteer at a national level. For illustrative purposes, general demographic information from one of the only empirical studies of police reserve officers that extends beyond one agency (surveys were sent to all reserves affiliated with a reserve training unit in the state of Minnesota, representing approximately 30 agencies)2 is provided and compared to volunteer statistics presented nationally by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor3 on some key demographic variables.


Differences exist between reserve volunteers and other volunteers in the categories of age, race and gender, and education.


  • Police reserve volunteers: 50 percent of police reserves were under age 40 at the time of the study, with 25 percent between age 18 and age 30 and 26 percent between age 31 and age 40.
  • Volunteers in general: Persons age 35 to age 44 are the most likely to volunteer, and persons age 16 to age 24 are the least likely to volunteer, making up only 21.9 percent of all the volunteers.
Race and Gender
  • Police reserve volunteers: Whites are more likely to volunteer than any other race. Males significantly outnumber females at a rate of 8 to 1.
  • Volunteers in general: Whites are more likely to volunteer than any other race. Women are more likely to volunteer in general.
  • Police reserve volunteers: 77 percent had achieved some college education, with approximately 8 percent having earned a graduate degree, 26 percent have a four-year degree, 26 percent a two-year degree, and 16 percent a technical degree.
  • Volunteers in general: 43 percent had some type of college degree.

Additionally, police reserve volunteers are more likely than volunteers in general to hold full-time jobs. Reserve officers are also more likely than volunteers in general to donate their time to more than one organization.

Analysis of Results

A brief analysis shows that police reserve officers are not the same as other types of volunteers with regard to gender, age, educational attainments, and paid employment status. Interestingly, though, some of the characteristics of volunteer officers align closely with those of full-time sworn police officers. Nationally, in 2004, the U.S. Department of Justice indicated that almost 12 percent of law enforcement officers are females.4 In 2003, at a national level, blacks represented 11.7 percent, Hispanics 9.1 percent, and other racial ethnic groups at 2.8 percent.5

In June 2010, the unemployment rate nationally was 9.5 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The following is the June 2010 rate of unemployment by selected demographics: 9.9 percent were adult men; 7.8 percent adult women; 8.6 percent whites; 15.4 percent blacks; 12.4 percent Hispanic or Latino; and 7.7 percent for Asians.6 An opportunity exists here to increase the participation of women and minorities in law enforcement by using the reserve officer position as a stepping stone for women and minorities to consider a career in law enforcement and also give both the unemployed and the employed meaningful activity in which to engage that provides social and career enhancement.7

Successful Recruitment

If agencies want to increase their numbers of female and minority volunteer police officers, then they could do what Volunteers in Police Service suggests for recruiting volunteers.8

  1. Use current volunteers as recruiting mechanisms
  2. Target educational centers
  3. Utilize the Internet
  4. Become connected with community volunteer centers

Agencies could also consider mirroring their recruitment efforts to hire more female police officers. The IACP conducted a survey of approximately 800 agencies and asked them where they found the most success in recruiting women to their agencies; 25 percent stated on college campuses, followed by 17 percent who identified newspapers. Furthermore, 26 percent stated that they had specific policies/strategies in place to actively recruit women, however, this was primarily true only for large departments.9 These suggestions could also be applied to the recruitment of minorities.

Agencies should also consider job clubs and social networking websites. In the past year, the popularity of these recruitment mechanisms has grown tremendously. Many churches and other local organizations offer support groups and weekly gatherings over meals for the unemployed to meet and network. There are many well-qualified people who take part in these events, and police organizations should tap into this valuable pool of candidates. These efforts could result in more volunteer assistance and officer candidates who have a wide variety of knowledge and skills to add to the assets of the force.

Recruiting even a few unemployed women and minorities could benefit an agency in the long run. This is especially significant when considering a third of reserve officers have future plans to work in criminal justice.10 With shrinking budgets; an increase in the demand for resources; and (sometimes) the need to improve law enforcement’s public image, departments should leverage the resources a volunteer can provide. ■


1Reserve officers generally do not receive financial compensation. However, some police departments refer to their part-time police officers as “reserve officers,” and, therefore, it is important to make the distinction between paid and nonpaid reserve officers. Furthermore, if reserve officers are paid, the compensation, generally, is not their main source of income.
2Susan Hilal, “Volunteer Police Reserve Officers: An Identity Theory Perspective” (doctoral dissertation, South Dakota State University, 2003).
3Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, “Volunteering in the United States, 2003,” news release, December 17, 2003, (accessed August 27, 2010).
4Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Crime in the United States 2004, Full-Time Law Enforcement Employees as of October 31, 2004, table 74, (accessed August 27, 2010).
5Matthew J. Hickman and Brian A. Reaves, Local Police Departments, 2003, NCJ 210118 (Washington D.C.: Bureau of Justice Statistics, Law Enforcement Management and Administrative Statistics, May 2006), 7, Gender and Race of Full-Time Sworn Personnel in Local Police Departments, by Size of Population Served, 2003, table 13, (accessed August 27, 2010).
6Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, “The Employment Situation—July 2010,” news release, August 6, 2010, (accessed August 27, 2010).
7Hilal, Volunteer Police Reserve Officers.
8Volunteers in Police Service, “Recruitment,” in Volunteer Programs: Enhancing Public Safety by Leveraging Resources (Alexandria, Va.: VIPS/IACP, 2010), chap. 4, (accessed August 27, 2010).
9International Association of Chiefs of Police, The Future of Women in Policing: Mandates for Action, November 1998, (accessed August 27, 2010).
10Hilal, Volunteer Police Reserve Officers.

Please cite as:

Susan M. Hilal and David P. Olson, "Police Reserve Officers: Essential in Today’s Economy and an Opportunity to Increase Diversity in the Law Enforcement Profession," The Police Chief 77 (October 2010): 92–94, (insert access date).



From The Police Chief, vol. 77, no. 10, October 2010. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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