Playing cop: Fatal shooting by reserve sheriff's deputy sparks debate about use of such volunteers

Robert BatesTulsa County JailRobert Bates, 73, turned himself in Tuesday morning to face a second-degree manslaughter charge stemming from when he fatally shot Eric Harris

The role of an elderly reserve sheriff’s deputy in a fatal shooting in Tulsa, Oklahoma has raised questions about the widespread use of such volunteers.

Insurance executive Robert Bates, 73, turned himself in to police Tuesday after a dashcam video of the confrontation in which he “inadvertently” shot suspect Eric Harris made headlines. He faces a second-degree homicide charge for the killing, which took place during an undercover operation.

Bates, who has donated thousands of dollars in equipment to the sheriff’s department, was one of its volunteers who ride along with officers on law enforcement operations.

Harris’s family questioned the use of Bates in such an undercover operation. “We do believe something is deeply wrong with the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office,” they said in a statement.

The practice, which goes back to the Wild West when citizens were brought in to help sheriffs nab outlaws, is defended by many in the law enforcement community.

Peter Moreno, a 28-year NYPD veteran who rose to the rank of captain before retiring in 2011, told Business Insider that reserve officers are valuable to law enforcement around the country, especially in smaller departments that use them to defray costs.

“They’re often used for these undercover type things [because] they’re not well known,” Moreno explained, adding that the NYPD often deploys them on underage drinking stings.

Moreno also explained that most reserve or auxiliary officers are armed and that training varies across departments.

Bates is one of more than 100 reserve deputies used by the TCSO, a department spokesperson recently told the Tulsa World newspaper, admitting that many are wealthy benefactors of the force.

Bates is a former police officer, he served one year on the force in the mid-1960s, but his widely reported donations in recent years have led to claims he paid to play cop.

This scenario is not unique to Tulsa.

Oakley, Michigan’s police department asks preemptive deputies to donate $US1,200 for the privilege, Salon reported.

“These people drop four or five grand and dress up to look like police,” Donna LaMontaine, president of the Deputy Sheriffs Association of Michigan, told Salon. “I have a problem with that.”

Auxiliary officer in uniformGetty ImagesAn auxiliary NYPD officer attends the funeral of a fellow auxiliary officer. Volunteer cops wear uniforms and incur the same risks as full-time police.

The Walker County (AL) Sheriff’s Office requires all reserves to buy their own gear and firearms at a total cost of about $US500 but does not require donations, according to the department’s website. A message left by Business Insider seeking further information about the program has yet to be returned.

Bates’ advanced age is as much a part of the debate as the path he took to the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office’s (TCSO) reserve deputy program.

The NYPD mandates that all employees, full-time or reserve, retire by the age of 62 – except the department commissioner. Current commissioner William Bratton is 67-years-old.

Riverside County (CA) has no maximum age for reserve deputies, according to the sheriff’s office website. People as young as 18 can even sign up, provided they pass the training courses.

Law enforcement agencies in Western Massachusetts mostly require all public safety personnel to retire by the age of 65, according to the Franklin Regional Retirement System.

When asked if it was common to have someone as old as Bates in the line of duty, Moreno said: “They may not have an age restriction there, they may want to have one.”

Varying requirements have resulted in a fractured law enforcement system with no uniform standard for training, a fact not lost on full-time police officers.

“I believe the ‘part time’ system of policing is absolutely ridiculous,” an unnamed officer griped to in a comment referenced in a Washington Post article. “The job has changed since walking down the street and spinning your baton … We contend with more anti-police groups, 24/7 video taping, and more charging and law suit filings then ever before.

“As such, to do this job without a full salary and full benefits is insane.”

Several celebrities, including NBA great Shaquille O’Neal and action star Steven Seagal, have also served as reserve deputies, the Post noted.

It is not clear how much training Bates received from the TCSO or if anyone within the force ever expressed concerns about his age or other ability to handle the stresses of tagging along with the Violent Crimes Task Force, as he did on the day he shot Harris.

Several messages left by Business Insider for multiple officials within the department have yet to be returned.

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