8News Investigates: Who’s behind the badge?

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — It’s a story that had everyone talking: 73-year-old volunteer reserve officer Robert Bates kills a man when he mistakenly grabs for his revolver instead of his stun gun.

The tragic incident in Oklahoma this past spring is calling into question the role and training of auxiliary officers nationwide.

8News found here in Virginia, with tight budgets, more police and sheriff’s departments are using volunteers to serve as auxiliary or reserve.

Fluvanna Sheriff Eric Hess tells 8News, “I don’t know of anybody, any of my peers, anywhere in law enforcement that isn’t understaffed.”

Louisa County Sheriff Ashland Fortune added, “It really is a big help.”

Yet, many are asking if these volunteers are trained appropriately.

Dana Schrad, Executive Director for VA Association of Chiefs, of Police says, “Even though they are volunteers we hold them to a pretty rigorous standard because we give them a lot of authority.”

8News found police departments in Virginia have a clear set of training standards for auxiliary officers that has to be documented with the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice.

But those standards do not apply to sheriff’s Departments.

“The sheriffs are not legally held to the auxiliary officer training standards because they are elected officials, they are not required to meet those standards,” Schrad explained.

As a result, who gets to play cop is often up to the sheriff.

8News discovered at the Louisa County Sheriff’s office, of the five auxiliary officers,  one of them, Bill Lowe, is the brother of the Department’s Deputy Chief Major Donnie Lowe.

Two others, Troy Wade and Christian Goodwin, are elected officials.

Sheriff Ashland Fortune doesn’t think it’s an issue.

When 8News asked, “Is this political favors, friends and family?

Sheriff Fortune responded. “No, they don’t get paid.”

Their auxiliary officers assist with marine patrols and crowd control.

Fortune says, “They do all the school activity football games, basketball games, dances.”

They’re not armed but they can work alone.

“They have radios,” says Fortune.

They get a unique badge, but a uniform that looks just like the uniforms of a full-time officer.

Retired police Captain Steve Neal says that could spell trouble.

“I am not sure that it is at all appropriate for law enforcement agencies to expect the average citizen to be able to distinguish an officer’s capabilities based on the color of their patch or the style of their badge,” says Neal.

In Fluvanna, faced with a force size of just 34 and many responsibilities, Sheriff Hess says he advertised for volunteers this past summer, but was cautious about whom he selected.

Most of the eight the department approved have a background in law enforcement.

Hess says, “We went through background checks, we did all the same process we would do as if you were coming to work for us fulltime.”

Fluvanna’s auxiliary officers help in the jail, courts and with special events.

“They are sworn in like any other officer is here,” says Hess.

They carry a weapon and are always paired with full-time patrols.

Fluvanna Captain Von Hill tells us, “They could make arrests.”

Training varies from department to department.

Sheriff Hess says he goes beyond the auxiliary minimum training requirements set for police departments.

“We used in house instructors who are certified to teach at the academy,” the sheriff explained.

Captain Von Hill added, “They learned about search and seizure, they learned about traffic stops, they learned about to reports, pedestrians on the streets.”

Louisa trains in-house and even though their auxiliary officers are not armed they still get firearms and use-of-force training.

“We try to give them at least 40 hours training at different intervals,” says Fortune.

Capt. Von Hill believes, “It can be done very efficiently.”

In Fluvanna, the Sheriff adds there is no cost to the taxpayer, volunteers pay for all their gear, and that includes their uniform and gun.

Problem is, how do we know every department in the state is efficiently training these volunteers when no one is checking in on the Sheriff’s? Neal says it’s a liability.

“I think the idea that the training standards be equal all across the board is probably in the best interests of everybody in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” states Neal.

Interested in seeing the training standards police departments have set for auxiliary officers? Click here.

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