Op-ed column: Saratoga Springs would benefit much from a volunteer auxiliary police unit

The Saratoga Police Department recognizes the importance of both police volunteerism and unsalaried

At the upcoming Elks Flag Day Parade in Saratoga Springs, set for this Saturday, no member of the Saratoga police force will march.

Their absence will be significant since the department’s Color Guard has led the parade for generations. It has been erroneously speculated by some that they will be sitting out the parade due to a contractual dispute over pay. However, a letter to the editor (“Law Bars Flag Day,” published in The Gazette May 25) from Saratoga Springs Police Chief Christopher J. Cole accurately noted that “officers in uniform and representing the municipality are considered on-duty and are required to perform official law enforcement functions, if necessary — even if it means leaving formation in the parade.”

In particular, he said the federal Fair Labor Standards Act “does not allow a public employer [the city of Saratoga Springs] to permit a law enforcement employee [a Saratoga Springs police officer] to volunteer to do work of the employer during off-duty time.” Lawyers and judges can and have debated the exact meaning of the terms of this law, e.g., “work,” “off-duty,” etc., but it is clear that the presence of marching uniformed municipal personnel will be missed by many.

Cutting costs

The state of New York and many of its towns and cities are in the midst of dire financial times. In January, Saratoga Springs police officials announced the end to three programs — DARE classes at elementary schools, its downntown K-9 patrol and the free installation of child safety seats — to cut costs.

In recent months, police overtime has been reduced by more than 30 percent. The effort to trim overtime is the reason the department’s Color Guard will be absent from the parade and for the recent termination of the child seat installation program. As a matter of policy, officers involved in either of these activities have received overtime compensation. At the same time, the mounted patrol was saved because the department’s two horses are stabled and fed at no cost to the city.

Members of the city’s police continue to perform volunteer services, especially for children, but not while in uniform.

The Saratoga Police Department recognizes the importance of both police volunteerism and unsalaried civilian help for the protection of the lives, safety and rights of the citizens and visitors to Saratoga Springs. In recent years, the department has revitalized a couple of neighborhood watch groups and has encouraged all citizens to assume greater responsibility for their own protection.

It would now be worthwhile for the city’s Department of Public Safety and the Police Department to consider recruiting qualified volunteer police officers. If such a unit were to be organized, the city’s neighborhood watch program could be greatly enhanced, the 21-year-old DARE program could be reinstated, various patrols expanded, the installation of child care safety seats maintained, and a few could help with parade events. Moreover, there would be greater resources to devote to a host of other public safety issues.

All volunteer police officers could be required to adhere to the same recruitment standards and hold the same qualifications as any regular police officer. Those standards could include testing and any other requirements established by the New York State Bureau for Municipal Police, New York State Department of Civil Service, Saratoga Springs Civil Service Commission, Saratoga Springs Department of Public Safety and Saratoga Springs Police Department.

Police recruits attend the Basic School for Police Officers held at the Zone Five Law Enforcement Training Academy in Schenectady. Volunteer police officers could undertake the same six-month training, conducted by qualified, unsalaried police and civilian instructors. However, the training would be offered in a part-time format in order to accommodate the new volunteers and this would extend the time period to about 15 to 18 months.

National effort

Currently, hundreds of cities throughout the U.S. have recruited volunteers to perform police-related services. In fact, Volunteers in Police Service is a national government-sponsored volunteer website. VIPS was formed after former President George W. Bush encouraged Americans to give back to their communities in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. The major goal of VIPS is to help volunteers and police work productively together for the greater good.

Officials in Saratoga Springs need to begin to consider how best to utilize citizen support. There are a variety of models to choose from. I have outlined a full-service volunteer officer model, but the VIPS website offers information on a variety of volunteer police programs. The most common types of volunteer municipal police officer programs are known as “reserve” or “auxiliary” police.

The New York City Auxiliary Police Program has been around since 1950. Within this program, unpaid volunteers observe and report. For citizens ages 60 and older, many police departments also offer senior volunteer programs where individuals can assist with fingerprinting, graffiti sightings and vacation house checks.

Why would anyone volunteer? In performing duties concerned with policing, often you can see immediate rewards. First and foremost, you know that you’re personally working to make your community a better, safer place. Even if you’re just typing up reports, you’re helping the full-time officers free up more time to keep criminals off your streets.

Martin A. Greenberg, an assistant professor of criminal justice, behavior and law at The College of Saint Rose, served for 12 years in the New York City Auxiliary Police and helped to supervise more than 1,000 auxiliaries.

Categories: Opinion

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