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Back to Archives | Back to April 2012 Contents 

The Volunteers in Police Service Program Contributes Ten Years of Added Value to Law Enforcement Agencies

By Larry Reinlasoder, Chief of Police, Colstrip, Montana, Police Department; Steve Sellers, Chief of Police, Albemarle County, Virginia, Police Department; Michael Wagner, Lieutenant, Administrative Division Commander, Albemarle County, Virginia, Police Department; and Jennifer Styles, VIPS Project Specialist, IACP

Volunteers with the Colstrip, Montana, Police Department
Photograph by the Colstrip Police Department
Volunteers with the Albemarle, Virginia, County
Police Department

Photograph by the Albemarle County
Police Department

olunteers have been formally and informally supporting law enforcement efforts for more than a century through auxiliary and reserve programs. Over the years, the growth of the community policing movement and recent challenging economic circumstances faced by state and local governments have changed the face of law enforcement volunteer programs in many ways.

In 2002, President George W. Bush laid the groundwork for the National Volunteers in Police Service (VIPS) program through the USA Freedom Corps initiative. With the support of the Bureau of Justice Assistance, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) launched the VIPS program in May 2002. This month the program celebrates its 10th year of providing support and resources to state, local, tribal, territorial, and campus law enforcement agencies.

The VIPS program began with 74 registered programs in 29 states. Today, 2,240 programs are operational in 50 states and 19 international locations. A 10th anniversary campaign to register 200 new programs this year continues to bring this number higher still. Law enforcement agencies can register with the VIPS program by visiting and clicking on “Register Your Program.”

Today, law enforcement volunteer programs are as diverse as the many agencies that host them. Programs range in size from one person to hundreds. Around the world, volunteers can be found in nearly all divisions of law enforcement work, from investigations to the property room to community outreach. Law enforcement agencies continually find new and innovative ways to utilize the skills and enthusiasm of volunteers to meet critical needs within the department. The volunteer program’s role is never to replace sworn or civilian employees. Rather, volunteers offer support to allow agencies to provide additional services, maintain positive relationships with the public, free up officer and staff time for higher level duties, and maximize law enforcement’s impact in the community.

In the fall of 2004, the VIPS program established a pilot development program. The purpose of the pilot program was to assist agencies that were interested in starting a law enforcement volunteer program. The new volunteer programs were built based on VIPS resources and the provision of technical assistance. Six agencies were selected through a competitive process and did not receive any direct monetary support. Today, all of the agencies that participated in the pilot development program maintain active programs, and the following profiles reflect the successes and the challenges faced by two chiefs during the development, the implementation, and the ongoing maintenance of their volunteer programs.

The Albemarle County, Virginia, Police Department

Overview. The Albemarle County, Virginia, Police Department (ACPD) serves a population of 100,000 and covers roughly 740 square miles of rural, suburban, and urban communities. The department has an authorized strength of a 120 sworn positions and employs 20 civilians. Initial planning for an ACPD VIPS program began in late 2004. The program struggled during the first few years, but, since revamping, it is growing again. The Administrative Services Division commander is the overall coordinator of the VIPS program. It is the policy of ACPD to provide the leadership, the training, and the necessary resources for all volunteers to complete any assigned tasks.

As of December 31, 2011, the ACPD VIPS program had 13 volunteers who contributed more than 3,300 volunteer hours during the calendar year. This level of support translates into an added value of more than $70,400 when calculated at the national hourly value of volunteer time—$21.36.1 Volunteers provide support in the Investigations, the Operations, the Training and Professional Development Division, and the Victim Witness Program.

Lessons Learned. The department experienced several growing pains that prevented the VIPS program from having a positive impact within the agency during its first few years. The support training and documentation from the IACP VIPS program was excellent, but the program struggled to adapt these to the specific needs of the department.

During the first two years of the program, the goals and objectives were not clearly defined, which caused the program to falter. The following is a list of critical mistakes.

  • The program enlisted new volunteers, but the needs of the department were not established and the volunteers did not possess the desire or the skills to assist the department in specific areas to increase the efficiency of the partnership.
  • The program enrolled 30 volunteers who were graduates of the Citizens Police Academy but did not have enough work to keep them busy. Many of them left the program.
  • The program went through several coordinators because the job description was not clearly defined and there was a lack of volunteers to supervise.
  • The program recruited generalists as opposed to recruiting specific skill sets.

Following a one-year hiatus of the program while the volunteer manager was deployed, the department committed itself to rebuilding the volunteer program. The volunteer manager worked with officers and staff to assess what needs were not being met in the department. They then looked not only at what tasks volunteers could do to assist but also at what specific skills the volunteers would need to possess to fulfill those duties. Rather than recruiting generally for volunteers, the volunteer manager began recruiting specifically for volunteers with the needed skills. For example, when the department’s crime analyst needed assistance in processing information, the department looked for someone with experience in intelligence. A volunteer with considerable career experience in military intelligence was selected to fill the position. When a need arose for assistance with completing critical infrastructure threat assessments using the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Automated Critical Asset Management System, a retired U.S. Department of State employee who specialized in threat assessment came on board to support the project. A new interview protocol was implemented to ascertain skill levels and ensure that expectations were clear to prospective volunteers.

The economic downturn has forced many community programs to be discontinued. But instead of eliminating the programs because of staffing issues, this department invites the community in as volunteers and allows them to continue to build the programs. Every VIPS program must have a clear-cut recognition program to provide volunteers with a sense of recognition and accomplishment.

Colstrip, Montana, Police Department

Overview. The Colstrip, Montana, Police Department began in May 2004 with the hiring of Larry Reinlasoder (one of this article’s authors) as its first chief of police. Chief Reinlasoder was tasked with planning and implementing the new police department. Today, the department has six full-time officers and two reserve officers, as well as five 9-1-1 dispatchers. The department supervises code enforcement and animal control issues and operates a seven-bed jail holding facility.

Colstrip is a community of 2,500 people located in rural southeastern Montana. It is approximately 18 miles north of the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation and 120 miles east of Billings. Colstrip is home to an important Montana Homeland Security site containing four coal-fired electric generating plants and a large coal mine operation. The Colstrip power plants provide electric power for the northwestern United States and California.

Colstrip Chief Larry Reinlasoder is pictured with toys collected for the Bears for Kids program. The toy bears are provided by volunteers and are given to children in crisis.
Photograph by the Colstrip Police Department
Colstrip Police Department volunteers participate in the Park Watch program, a problem-solving policing initiative undertaken in partnership with the Colstrip Parks and Recreation District.
Photograph by the Colstrip Police Department
The Colstrip Police Department adopted a mission, values statements, goals, and objectives based on the principles of community policing. Among the guiding principles of the Colstrip police were concern for victims and a desire to encourage community involvement. The police department wanted community feedback and assistance in implementing crime prevention programs, victim assistance, and other programs addressing community concerns.

The Colstrip Police Department became a founding member of the Montana Crime Prevention Association and, working through the Montana Board of Crime Control, sponsored a community forum on crime prevention. Twenty-five community members attended the forum, and, from that meeting, more than 20 issues of concern to the community were identified. The group included representatives of law enforcement, local and county government, medical and social service agencies, the schools, the media, and the community. The top three concerns chosen for immediate attention were underage alcohol possession, drug abuse, and domestic violence issues. The forum evolved into a new volunteer group, the Colstrip Crime Prevention Advisory Group. The police department and these citizen volunteers held town hall meetings to provide information for concerned citizens on how to address the issues identified as community problems. The town hall meeting concept continues as a means for the police and the crime prevention group to provide critical information to the community. Advisory group volunteers also help to implement community programming such as the Bears for Kids program through which volunteers provide toy bears for officers to calm and reassure children in crisis. In partnership with the local park system, advisory group volunteers established a volunteer park watch program that resulted in a nearly 50 percent reduction in calls for service to the parks, going from 155 calls for service primarily involving disorderly youth, drug and alcohol use, and vandalism in 2007 to 80 calls in 2011.

Volunteers have stepped forward to work with the police on forming a victim advocate group to provide services to victims of domestic and sexual violence. The police department partnered with a regional organization already in place that provided support services to those in abusive relationships, and the volunteer victim advocates are supported by that organization.

Another way the department engages volunteers is through the Colstrip Police Chaplains Group program. Representatives of local faith communities work with the police to provide support to the department in the areas of inmate counseling and victim assistance and notification as well as moral and spiritual assistance to department members when asked.

To date, the VIPS concept adopted by the Colstrip Police Department has engaged 25 community volunteers who have provided an estimated 500 hours of unpaid time devoted to making their community a safer place to live.

Lessons Learned. Following are several tips gleaned from the Colstrip Police Department.

  • The police executive must be actively involved in getting the message out to the community about community issues and the need for a coordinated community response. Community policing is a philosophy, but it takes programs to make it more than just a public relations tool.
  • Limited financial resources and manpower shortages make things more difficult, and the involvement of volunteers to initiate and staff support programs is critical.
  • The role volunteers play in making community policing means something, and their actual work cannot be measured in dollars alone. Respect for the role of law enforcement professionals and the hard work they do is enhanced with community volunteers. On the other hand, the respect by police officers for the 95 percent of the good, law-abiding citizens in a community is enhanced as that positive interaction is applied to the day-to-day activities of a police agency.
  • The police executive and the dedicated employees of the agency must be cognizant at all times of the message they present to the community. They must encourage community involvement and give a positive message at every possible turn that there is strength in numbers.

Programs to assist the community can and should involve community members, and they should be based on the identified needs of the community. Think of it this way: What if you gave a party to which nobody came? That can happen to a law enforcement agency if the agency does not actually adhere to a meaningful values and mission statement and put into practice the motto “to protect and serve.” The need for volunteers to assist the police in making a community a safe place to live, work, and play is well documented. It is a partnership that works.

Resources to Start or Enhance a VIPS Program

Every law enforcement volunteer program is different depending on the needs of the agency and the community, but there are several core questions that all agencies must consider when starting or enhancing a volunteer program: what your volunteers will do; how they will be recruited, vetted, trained, and recognized; who will manage and supervise them; and what policies and procedures will guide the program. With expenses including staff time, work space, screening, supplies, uniforms, and recognition, there are some costs to be considered when planning for a volunteer program.

Through a variety of services and resources, the VIPS program is available to help law enforcement agencies to create or enhance a volunteer program that will effectively engage volunteers to increase agency efficiency. The following tools and more can be found on the VIPS website at


Having a dedicated, well-trained volunteer manager is an essential part of maintaining a volunteer program. In the past 10 years, the VIPS program trained 3,300 law enforcement chiefs, officers, and volunteer managers at 104 training sessions around the country. More than 550 people have registered for the e-learning course, Building Blocks of a Law Enforcement Volunteer Program. This introductory e-learning course covers the foundations of volunteer management and is open to all chiefs and law enforcement volunteer program managers. Visit to register.

Later this year, VIPS will launch a new e-learning course about the use of law enforcement volunteers in disaster response. This course will provide information about integrating volunteers into a law enforcement agency’s plan for natural disasters, public health crises, and other emergencies.


Over the past 10 years, the VIPS program has developed many publications and resources to aid law enforcement volunteer managers. These include a model policy on the use of volunteers, a resource guide to help programs get started, a collection of videos, and a series of articles on the latest topics and trends in law enforcement volunteer management. Additionally, the VIPS Resource Library has more than 500 sample volunteer applications, handbook, trainings, and other documents from agencies around the country that can help efficiently track and manage volunteers.

Recruitment and Networking

One of the greatest assets of the VIPS program is the vast collection of knowledge and experience that exists in its national network of law enforcement volunteer program managers. The VIPS-to-VIPS moderated discussion group allows registered users to post questions and share information about their law enforcement volunteer activities. Volunteer managers can log in to their VIPS Program Directory account or email to join the discussion group. Through the VIPS Program Directory, volunteer managers can see what other programs are doing and can showcase their own programs for prospective volunteers who are looking to get involved in their communities.

While maintaining a volunteer program requires an investment of time and resources, the return on investment is substantial. Tools including resources from the VIPS program and a strong national network of law enforcement volunteer managers are available to help add to the value of volunteers in support of the agency’s mission. ■


1“Value of Volunteer Time,” Independent Sector, (accessed February 29, 2012).

Please cite as:

Larry Reinlasoder et al., "The Volunteers in Police Service Program Contributes Ten Years of Added Value to Law Enforcement Agencies," The Police Chief 79 (April 2012): 26–31.

Click to view the digital edition.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXIX, no. 4, April 2012. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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