International Comparisons in Volunteer Law Enforcement: More similarities than differences

IPSCJ Director, Laura Knight, recently travelled to the USA to speak at a Dallas law enforcement conference. During her visit, Laura discovered how similar American policing challenges are to our own in the UK, discussed the prospect of increasing volunteer engagement, and bravely accepted the challenge of dragging a 260lb man across a room…

“You don’t carry a gun, and you don’t eat meat? What the hell are you doing here?!” was how one American Police Reservist jokingly welcomed me to Dallas, Texas, last week, where I was invited to speak at the Volunteer Law Enforcement Officer Alliance Annual Training Conference.

I was culturally, as well as geographically, a long way from home, which would provide a great opportunity to gain insight into the comparisons and contrasts between volunteer policing models from across the world (the USA, UK, Canada, Singapore, the Bahamas and the Caiman Islands were all represented), and also give me a taste of some of the training American Police Reserves carry out.

The ‘drag-a-man’ challenge

I am pleased to report that I successfully completed the Bleeding Control Basic Course, and I was able to drag a 260lb man (that’s over 18st or 118kg) across a classroom. You can check out video evidence of my success at the task, below (for comedy purposes only, I should note – this is not official training…):

We also completed reality-based training, rappelling (abseiling), driver training and more.

Addressing the need to value, encourage and empower

Alongside the practical elements to the conference, were discussions and presentations about current issues in volunteering in law enforcement and the potential for growth going forward, across the scale, scope and impact of opportunities for people to volunteer their time, energy and skills in policing.

What quickly became apparent were the similarities in the questions we raised and the challenges we face, despite our often very different contexts, cultures and environments. The need to value, encourage and empower our existing volunteers was core to the interests of leaders and frontline officers across countries. The provision of training, equipment, vehicles, mobile phones, guns and so on, differs according to volunteer role, experience and police department. Much of the discussion was about how we can be more sophisticated about the distribution of resources according to roles undertaken, and to make more explicit the link between police investment in volunteers and the contribution or impact this yields.

Increased police engagement with communities

A key area of interest in terms of ‘impact’ of volunteer law enforcement was the potential for increased engagement with communities that are less likely to engage with policing and are less well represented amongst officers. The Toronto Auxiliary Police place emphasis on community engagement, legitimacy and diversity of involvement of volunteers for this purpose – to encourage wider participation in policing and to build stronger relationships across diverse communities. The Washington DC Police Department are focussing on building recruitment approaches that effectively use technology and digital engagement to enable greater interaction and bespoke communication with various groups, including those from specific communities, those with higher educational achievements and targeting specialist skills.

Issues of retention were also raised, recognising high attrition in various contexts, caused by a multitude of factors. The relationships between reservists, or Special Constables, and ‘regular’ officers was often referred to in relation to this, particularly in terms of the impact of new volunteer recruits and their training and support requirements on existing regular officers. Several different countries and models could point to periods of focussed volunteer recruitment that have led to blockages in vetting processes, availability of training, regular officer availability for support, poor development of relationships, poor experience for both volunteers and regulars and lower retention of volunteers. These issues play out differently in different contexts, and it seemed that relationships between reservists and regulars in American policing models have strong foundations. This may be driven by factors such as the higher number of retired police officers represented in the reservists, or cultural dimensions such as the higher number of police deaths due to American gun crime, which may create a higher level of respect between officers for placing themselves in danger regardless of whether voluntary or paid. Further research is needed!

A tragic reminder from Texas

This environment of threat was highlighted on the last day of the conference, when we received news of the Texas church shooting, in which 25 people tragically lost their lives. The grief and sense of fear this creates for communities and those working

in policing is severe. The level of deprivation I witnessed in some communities goes far beyond what the police or police reservists are able to address and needs local, state and federal government policy interventions to turn these communities around. However, an active citizenry that is representative of these communities has a role to play in improving neighbourhoods and police reserves can play a fundamental role in this.

Wrapping up

In summary, engaging with international colleagues about this area of study underlined the worldwide need for public participation and volunteering in policing. Collaboration between policing and law enforcement across contexts is important forsharing problems, learning, ideas and ambition. There is very limited research in this field, and a significant need for more sophisticated assessments of the contribution and value of volunteering in policing. Our new relationship with the Orlando Police Department and University of Central Florida – through our Associate Fellow, Professor Ross Wolf – will help to expand the IPSCJ’s contribution to police learning in this area by providing a broader international perspective