Police and sheriffs departments all over the country use civilian volunteers to boost their forces. The practice allows them to wear badges and uniforms and even authorizes them to carry guns. If best practices are followed this can be a smart way for cash strapped departments to stretch their resources or to vet potential full-time hires.
Every once in a while, however, things go bad. Seldom do they go as bad as they did in Tulsa on April 2.
That's when volunteer sheriffs Deputy Robert Bates, a 73-year-old insurance executive, shot and killed a suspect who had fled an undercover sting. Bates later said he thought he was pulling out his Taser but drew his gun instead and fatally wounded 44 year old Eric Harris.
Bates pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to a charge of second-degree manslaughter, posted $25,000 bail and got permission from the court to go to the Bahamas. The act displayed a tone-deafness about the killing that has plagued this case from the beginning.
The Tulsa incident is a vivid example of the terrible risks of giving unqualified people the life or death power police have.
It should remind every sheriff and police chief that they're putting the public at grave risk if they use volunteer programs to do favors for the wealthy or well-connected people who have no business being on the street.
That's what appears to have happened in Tulsa. Bates is far past the age when most active duty street cops retire and there are indications he was inadequately trained for his backup role.
Bates and sheriff Stanley Glanz are long-time friends. Bates has donated tens of thousands of dollars worth of vehicles and police equipment to the department. Bates ran Glanz's 2012 re-election campaign and gave the sheriff a $2500 donation. Glanz initially excused the incident as a simple "error" saying that Bates had done nothing wrong.
Prosecutors took a different view.
Whether the friendship and the donations persuaded Glanz to look at the other way might become clearer during Bates' prosecution. If that's what happened, it wouldn't be the first time.
Police chiefs and sheriffs desperate for money, besotted by celebrity or simply doing favors for friends, have too often handed out badges and guns to people who should have neither.
The chief of Oakley, Michigan sold the right to be a reserve officer for a donation of $1200. More if you actually wanted a badge. The Los Angeles County sheriffs department suspended a special reserve unit for celebrities in 1999 after one reserve deputy was arrested for brandishing a gun and another for money laundering.
Some departments run their volunteer programs the right way. Reserves are restricted to tasks such as office duty or crowd control or allowed to carry guns on the street only after rigorous training and careful supervision.
In Tulsa we know have a reserve deputy who face's a manslaughter charge. This level of scrutiny shouldn't be reserved for just the ride-alongs. Officials who let cronies play cop should face just as much scrutiny and be forced to account for the consequences of their decisions.