Rich Stewart has no siblings, and after both of his parents died years ago, he found himself spending much of his free time volunteering at the Tulsa County courthouse after becoming a reserve deputy in 2014.
But when the Robert Bates scandal struck, and the reserve program was suspended, Stewart found himself cut off from his second family.
“Those guys and gals at the county are my family,” said Stewart, who also serves Bixby as a city councilor. “And it hurt to see my family go through so much.”
As the reserve deputy program nears being brought back online, Stewart and many other volunteer officers are eagerly awaiting its renewal.
And when it begins again, the reserve program will look vastly different than it did when Bates, now 74 years old, shot and killed a fleeing suspect last year. Bates spent about seven years on the reserve force, and went on hundreds of some of the most dangerous task force raids the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office conducted.
But those days are over, both for Bates and the reserve deputy force. The insurance executive is now in jail awaiting formal sentencing after a jury found him guilty last month of second-degree manslaughter, and new Sheriff Vic Regalado has redesigned reserve deputy regulations in a way that will no longer allow reserves to join task force operations.
And that’s not all: Gone are the days when reserves worked in a tiered system — for example, advanced deputies had the most training and were allowed to patrol on their own. Below that tier were intermediate reserves and then basic reserves. Now there is only one category, and all reserves will have to go through the 720 total hours of training (480 hours of field training and 240 hours with the Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training) advanced reserves had to previously accumulate.
Regalado recently announced 10 specific changes to the program, which he SAID? hopes will provide more structure and protect TCSO from ever having another Bates scandal.
But the side effect of the changes, as well as the nearly year-long hiatus, is that it will be a massively pared-down group when the reserves are finally activated. At the time of the Harris shooting, the roster stood at about 120 reserves.
Now, Regalado expects there to be about 40.
“That (tiered system) was probably the biggest problem with some of them (wanting to return),” Regalado said. “There were some that would go ‘Hey, I don’t want to ride around in patrol, so why do I have to do (the extended training)?’
“My answer to them has been and will be, if you wear this uniform … if you’re wearing this gun and this uniform and something happens, you are going to be looked at as law enforcement. No one is running up going ‘No you’re a reserve, never mind.’ They’re going to look at you like you need to handle this. If you’re not trained properly, you’re going to get yourself hurt, you’re gonna incur a lot of civil liability … I said guys, we don’t have to point very far to show you what can happen if things go bad.”
Reserves will also be required to do an additional 40 hours of “patrol tactics and decision making” training that former Sheriff Stanley Glanz said last year was something he had not made reserves do in the past.
They’re also required to do the same two hours of mental health training that a regular law enforcement officer must do, as well as a “fit for duty” physical test, and two weeks of field evaluations.
Other changes include a “three-tiered” system of records keeping and a biannual audit of their records. Last year, after Bates shot Harris, TCSO was unable to provide records of his training and gun qualifications. An audit of reserve deputies showed more than half the force lacked documentation of their training.
Regalado said the new system will mandate that all reserve records, including timesheets (reserves must donate a certain number of hours per year) are stored electronically, and that the reserves and the program coordinators are required to keep those records as well.
“So if, for whatever reason, someone forgets to mark down their hours (where they’ve donated time or trained), a record will exist in at least two other places.”
Nine reserves could begin this month, Regalado said, once they complete a physical fitness test. Others will start working as they complete their training.
“It’s going to be a trickle effect,” Regalado said. “There are quite a few that are very close to fulfilling the requirements I’ve set for them … It will take some time before the program is good to go … but when it is, no one will be able to question it ever again. I think (the changes) will have a lasting effect as opposed to a knee-jerk, ‘let’s fix this quick and just run it out there’ thing.”
When the Community Safety Institute report was released in March — the report, commissioned last year following the Harris shooting, gave a thorough review of TCSO — it recommended shuttering the reserve program and starting from scratch. Much like when Regalado announced last week that County Assessors would have to reapply for their jobs, as the reserve deputies would have had to under the proposed CSI plan.
But Regalado said that was an untenable solution in the case of the reserve deputies.
“One, we simply don’t have the resources here to go ‘OK, all of you are done,’ re-apply and we’ll get you through,” he said. “The second reality is that a few of them had literally just completed a majority of what I’m asking them to complete, and for me to (say) ‘Sorry, I know you just graduated from the academy and did your 480 hours, and I know you haven’t even done anything, or been in a patrol car yet, but guess what, you’re starting over.’ That would be unfair.”
Regalado said he hoped the full group of reserve deputies would be functional by October’s Tulsa State Fair, an event that usually utilizes the reserve deputies in a security function. That free security saves the county about $40,000 a year, according to TCSO yearly reports.
Last year, reserve deputies were not allowed to provide security at the fair because of the program’s hiatus.