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.