Police in Saugerties are using an innovative — at least locally — program to supplement manpower on the street while giving rookie cops a critical foot in the door to a law enforcement career.
Since 2014, the Saugerties Police Department has run a “reserve officer” program that uses unpaid volunteers who work, armed and in uniform, alongside full-time town police. The reservists, all New York State-certified police officers, are involved in all aspects of local law enforcement, from road patrol to special details like policing the town’s annual Zombie Crawl. The reservists range from young rookies still seeking their first paid law enforcement job to retired cops with decades of experience who want to keep a hand in the game. For police chief Joseph Sinagra, they’ve become a key component in his effort to get more cops on the street without breaking the department’s budget.
“With the fiscal environment these days everyone wants you to do more with less,” said Sinagra. “Well, you can’t do more with less people, but you can do more with less money if people are willing to volunteer.”
Police reserve programs that use trained volunteers to supplement paid staff are common out west and in the south where some departments maintain reserve rosters of a thousand or more officers. Closer to home, the NYPD has long maintained an auxiliary division which uses unarmed volunteers in uniform for crowd control at special events and to increase police visibility. Ulster County and other communities around the state once employed police volunteer units as part of the Cold War’s civil defense infrastructure. Sinagra, who wrote a thesis paper on volunteer policing said he was influenced by observing the robust police reserve program in Palm Beach County Florida. When he signed on as Chief of the Saugerties Police Department in 2013, he immediately set to work setting up a reserve program.
“If you have a full-fledged, certified police officer who’s willing to work for free, why not take advantage of that?” said Sinagra.
But first, Sinagra had to sell the plan to town officials and the department’s Police Benevolent Association, the union representing Saugerties cops. Sinagra said that PBA officials were initially skeptical and expressed concern that the reserve program would siphon hours from the department’s 24 full-time and 10 part-time officers. In response, Sinagra came up with a detailed protocol on how and when the reserve cops could be used. Under the plan, reserve officers must be fully certified under state guidelines and undergo the same vetting, including background checks, drug tests and a polygraph exam, as regular officers. The reservists must work alongside a full-time town police officer. To fill vacancies in patrol shifts or at special events, department staff must first offer the spots first to full-time officers, then to part-timers before calling on the reservists. For special events, the department carries out a needs assessment to determine how many officers are needed. Once the quota is filled with regular officers, the reservists may be called on to supplement the detail. Sinagra also capped the reserve program at six field officers and two coordinators who set schedules and perform other administrative tasks.
“Everything we do is just to supplement the regulars,” said Police Reserve Director Jeff Jayson. “We add manpower that the department would not otherwise have the resources to provide and give an added measure of public safety.”
Helping the community
Jayson, 66, was headed for a career in law enforcement back in 1977 when he was hired by the NYPD only to fall victim to the city’s financial crisis before he could complete his training. He went on to a successful career as a network television news producer. Jayson worked as a reserve deputy in Rockland County before moving to Saugerties where he helped Sinagra found the police volunteer program. Jayson, who finished near the top of a police academy class alongside officers a third his age, said that initial skepticism by regular officers about the reservists has faded as the volunteers have been integrated into the force.
“There was no real animosity, because nothing we do infringes on the paycheck of a regular,” said Jayson. “We don’t always get the glory assignments, you might just be standing at a gate somewhere checking IDs, but we’re helping the community.”
Besides supplementing departmental manpower, the reserve program also offers a way in to policing for qualified rookies looking for a break. Traditionally, would-be Ulster County cops take a civil service test and get hired by a department which then sponsors their attendance at a multi-agency police academy. Once they finish the academy, they return to their sponsoring agency for at least 120 hours of field training working alongside a specially certified instructor before becoming full-fledged police officers. About a decade ago, however, SUNY Ulster partnered with the Ulster County Law Enforcement Training Group to open up academy training to self-paying students without a sponsoring police agency. The “civilian” academy trainees cannot take the last two weeks of training, which involve firearms and specialized homeland security courses, unless they find a police agency to sponsor them. If they go two years without finding a police job, their certification lapses and, if they are hired, they will need to go through the entire academy program again. Sinagra said the relative scarcity of police jobs left a pool of qualified academy graduates willing to volunteer in order to complete the academy training and keep their certification current.
“You have all these young college students who go through the academy thinking, ‘I’m going to be a police officer,’” said Sinagra. “Then they realize that these jobs are few and far between.”
Richard Carlson, a 23-year-old officer from a law enforcement family was paying his own way through the Ulster County academy when Sinagra dropped by to pitch the reserve program. Working as a volunteer, Carlson was able to complete the academy and his field training. That in turn led to his being hired as a part-time officer in Saugerties, Woodstock and Rosendale. Carlson said the volunteer program offered participants not just a foot in the door, but an opportunity to test their mettle in a busy department and decide if they wanted to pursue a career in policing.
“It’s very good exposure to see what this career is really like,” said Carlson. “Not every day is like Starsky and Hutch, but there are those moments that make your hair stand on end and those calls that take a toll on you and not everybody can handle it.”
Sinagra said a number of participants in the reserve program, having completed field training and gained real-world experience, had gone on to full-time positions with other police agencies. Even colleagues who had expressed skepticism about the volunteer program had found it to be a valuable source of fully trained and vetted new officers.
“These are not a bunch of jamokes coming in here who want to play cop,” said Sinagra. “This is where their heart and soul is.”