Police Volunteers and Ethics

By Schmidt, Carol | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, September 2006 | Go to article overview

Police Volunteers and Ethics


Schmidt, Carol, The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin


Today, the public has become more actively involved with their local law enforcement agencies. With staffing shortages, departments have welcomed the extra resource that volunteers offer as a partial solution to some of their needs. (1) But, the increase in citizens volunteering with law enforcement agencies has added to the issues raised concerning those individuals who exercise authority and their ethical standards. How do law enforcement volunteers fit into this discussion?

The Clearwater, Florida, Police Department has had a successful volunteer program for several years and can offer some answers that may assist other agencies. Starting with about 12 steady volunteers nearly 10 years ago, the department now has 84 dedicated individuals who have proven their worth in countless ways. They have assisted citizens in potentially life-threatening situations, observed and reported crimes in progress that resulted in arrests, and assisted officers with many tasks. Based on the national average hourly value of a volunteer's time of $17.19 in 2003, (2) the department calculated that the 14,426 hours their volunteers contributed equated to $247,991. While this represents a remarkable demonstration of community support, it also illustrates the need for consistent oversight, comprehensive training, and well-developed guidelines that can help volunteers thrive in the law enforcement environment.

Advantages of a Volunteer Program

From an administrator's point of view, the use of volunteers offsets expenses without lowering the accomplishments of the agency. Volunteers do not replace sworn officers or any paid positions; instead, they enhance the quality of service that the organization can provide to its community.

Agencies use volunteers in numerous ways, from administrative tasks to assisting officers on the street. Administrative volunteers can help with data entry, filing, supply distribution, and many other office duties. Patrol volunteers can augment sworn officers in nonhazardous situations, such as parking enforcement, ordinance violations, traffic control, and special events.

From their viewpoint, volunteers gain a high sense of purpose by helping to keep their community safe and contributing to the agency's mission. They come to the law enforcement arena with different agendas and various backgrounds. Their reasons include looking toward a career in law enforcement, improving their promotional potential in their civilian jobs by volunteering, socializing with like-minded individuals, and giving back to their community. What they all have in common is a very high regard for law enforcement. Many other organizations need volunteers, but these citizens want to be involved in law enforcement. They also possess a variety of skills that they have acquired throughout their lives. Given adequate training, a friendly work environment, and a strong sense of belonging, volunteers can become extremely loyal and help the agency achieve its goals and objectives. To this end, they should reflect the organization's high professional standards.

Ethics and the Volunteer

Because volunteers can range in age from 18 to 90, they bring many different experiences, beliefs, and standards to the agency. Those with little life experience may not have a mature sense of ethics, whereas retired volunteers may have well-developed morals. This highlights the need for straightforward guidelines and a code of ethics adhered to by all personnel in the agency. Moreover, the department's culture will exemplify the ethical standards for volunteers.

Of course, law enforcement members have learned through advanced education and training what is necessary to be involved in the profession. They hold themselves to a higher standard of ethics than do most others in society. Volunteers have not had the same training, but their exposure to departmental personnel will influence how they conduct themselves. …

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