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Police Departments Turn to Volunteers

Jesse McKinley|The New York Times
Wednesday, 2 Mar 2011 | 11:12 AM ET

Roman Sarkisian easily passes for your average Fresno police officer: crew cut, tight-set jaw and “just-the-facts” demeanor.

“I like to do law enforcement stuff,” said Mr. Sarkisian, 23, an immigrant from the republic of Georgia who is studying criminology at the city college here. “I like helping out putting bad guys in jail.”

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But Mr. Sarkisian is not a police officer, and he does not carry a gun or a Taser. He is a police volunteer, part of an experiment by departments across the country that enlists trained amateurs to perform a broad — and occasionally dangerous — array of investigative duties like collecting evidence, interviewing witnesses, searching for missing persons and stolen vehicles and looking into long-dormant cases.

Hamstrung by shrinking budgets, the police say the volunteers are indispensable in dealing with low-level offenses and allow sworn officers to focus on more pressing crimes and more violent criminals.

“We had the option to either stop handling those calls or do it in a different manner,” said Fresno’s police chief, Jerry Dyer, whose department has lost more than 300 employees in recent years. “I’ve always operated under the premise of no risk, no success. And in this instance, I felt we really didn’t have very much to lose.”

Other chiefs facing budget problems are also using volunteers. In Mesa, Ariz., a Phoenix suburb, 10 of them have been trained to process crime scenes, dust for fingerprints and even swab for DNA. In Pasadena, Calif., a team of retirees is combating identity theft — and, apparently, their own ennui.

“Once I retired and cleaned up my house, I was bored,” said Liz Diott, 67, a former vice president at the Bank of America who now works 20 hours a week at the Pasadena Police Department. “It keeps me on my toes.”

Civilians have long taken on administrative or menial duties for the police — there are volunteer programs at some 2,100 departments nationwide, according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police — and some departments, including in New York City, use auxiliary officers for traffic control, beat patrols and other duties.

But the use of volunteers in investigations raises legal and liability questions, said Robert Weisberg, the co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center. He suggested such programs could provide openings for defense lawyers to suppress evidence and attack witnesses’ testimony.

“If I were a defense lawyer, I would certainly say in front of the jury, ‘Mr.’ — and I would underline Mister — ‘Mr. Shoontz, you’re a volunteer. You’re not really a police officer, are you?” Mr. Weisberg said.

San Francisco’s district attorney, George Gascon, a former police chief in Mesa, said he was not worried that police volunteers would cause problems for prosecutors. “So long as there is appropriate training and supervision in place, that should not be an area of concern,” he said.

Mr. Gascon and other supporters say such programs — in addition to providing free labor — are a recruitment tool for police cadets and are popular with residents.

“Citizens are more receptive to our volunteers than to our officers,” said Officer Celestine Ratliff, the volunteer liaison for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department in North Carolina.

Still, Allen Hopper, the police practices director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, said volunteers needed to be aware of — and responsible for — suspects’ constitutional protections. While sworn officers can be punished for breaking those rules, he said, “It is unclear how these important safeguards would apply to civilians doing police officers’ jobs.”

Supporters say the volunteers are screened and extensively trained. In Mesa, the volunteer crime scene specialists have to demonstrate that they are competent in various types of evidence collection and, oddly, be able to lift 25 pounds. “We’re asking a lot for people we’re not paying,” said Linda Bailey, the department’s volunteer coordinator. “But these folks are handling evidence, and they have access to confidential information.”

Most departments say they do not want their volunteers to confront criminals in the act. In El Paso County, Colo., which is home to Colorado Springs, the so-called citizen patrols check out burglar alarms, but if there is any indication that a crime is under way, they are instructed to call in an actual sworn officer, Sheriff Terry Maketa said.

In Fresno, where the pilot program began last year, officials say the program was vetted by the county’s district attorney to address legal concerns. The volunteers’ shirts are a different color than the sworn officers’, and they are restricted to handling nonviolent crimes like petty theft, stolen vehicles and vandalism that is not gang-related.

“The reality is we’ve not had any challenges yet,” Chief Dyer said.

“The whole thing is very cool.”

The Fresno program has drawn a diverse roster of crime fighters, including a recent class that included an assistant golf pro, a Pizza Hut manager and Steve Aberle, a Spanish teacher with a mop of gray hair. Mr. Aberle said he went through the 11-week training course to get a taste of “the edge” of police life that he had read about in crime novels. “The whole thing is very cool,” he said.

The class also included several young men like Mr. Sarkisian who said they had volunteered as a way into a law enforcement career.

On a recent morning, Officer Kent Pichardo was training Mr. Sarkisian, part of the 40 hours that each volunteer must spend in the field with an active-duty officer. They were answering calls in Southeast Fresno, a blue-collar neighborhood where the Bulldog street gang has pockets of members. And while he looked the part — with a blue jacket over his white shirt, there was little to distinguish him for Officer Pichardo — Mr. Sarkisian seemed nervous, chewing gum, sheepishly knocking on doors and scribbling in a worn notebook. (One page was labeled “Cop Notes.”)

By the end of his shift, Mr. Sarkisian had diligently worked his way through an interview with the parent of a missing teenager. At one point, Mr. Sarkisian asked whether the girl had any identifiable marks, and the parent mentioned a tattoo of a dog’s paw.

“So she was gang-affiliated,” Mr. Sarkisian said, recognizing it as a Bulldog symbol. Officer Pichardo nodded in approval.

Officer Pichardo, a 16-year-veteran, said that volunteers like Mr. Sarkisian — who is allowed to carry a macelike spray — “could come across people who are antipolice” Still, he said, he would train Mr. Sarkisian “just as I’d train any other officer,” though he needs “to be aware of where the line stops.”

“Do I want him to make an arrest? Not really,” Officer Pichardo said. “But I want him to be an outstanding witness.”

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