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Report: Sheriff's office falsified training of the volunteer cop who killed Eric Harris

Reserve sheriff's deputy Robert Bates appears in a booking photo at the Tulsa County Jail in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on April 14, 2015.
Reserve sheriff's deputy Robert Bates appears in a booking photo at the Tulsa County Jail in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on April 14, 2015.

Supervisors at the Tulsa County Sheriff's Office were ordered to falsify the training records of Robert Bates — the deputy who shot and killed Eric Harris on April 2 after apparently mistaking his gun for a Taser — to give him credit for field training he never took and firearms certifications he did not actually receive, sources told the Tulsa World.

Bates was a 73-year-old reserve deputy — an insurance company executive who volunteered to help out career sheriffs in his free time. But after Harris's death, the Sheriff's Office told the media he was classified as "advanced reserve," a designation that requires hundreds of hours of training and gives reserve deputies the same privileges as their full-time counterparts.

Now that classification is in question. One source told the Tulsa World that three of Bates's supervisors were transferred after refusing to sign off on falsified training record for him.

After the police-involved deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Eric Garner in New York City, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, and Walter Scott in South Carolina, Harris's death has made headlines — seen as yet another illustration of racial disparities in police use of force. Harris, a 44-year-old black man, was pinned down by multiple officers when Bates fatally shot him, and other officers on the scene dismissed Harris's pleas that he couldn't breathe by saying, "Fuck your breath!" and "You shouldn't have ran."

Bates has been charged with second-degree manslaughter. But aside from how the criminal justice system will punish him, the facts of this case have also raised questions about the legitimacy of his armed participation in Harris's arrest, the operation of the Tulsa County Sheriff's Office deputy reserve program (the office announced Thursday that it will conduct an internal review), and the value of any arrangement that lets laypeople act as law enforcement officers.

Reserve deputies — regular people helping out the cops — are really common and pretty uncontroversial

(Shutterstock)

(Shutterstock)

Tulsa Sheriff's Department Maj. Shannon Clark told the Tulsa World that Bates, who spent once spent a year as an actual police officer, is now a "highly regarded member of the Reserve Deputy Program," with "hundreds of hours of specialized training."

Whether that's true is now unclear. But, details of Bates's training aside, it turns out it's not at all uncommon for someone like him to play this role for a sheriff's or police department.

These reservists typically work their own full-time jobs, according to the Tulsa World's reporting, undergo a training program, and then head out on patrol. Sheriff's Maj. Shannon Clark told the paper it's also typical for a reserve deputy to be assigned to the Violent Crimes Task Force, like Bates was when he killed Harris.

But Bates probably overstepped by getting involved in Harris's arrest

Eric Harris during a police sting that caught him illegally selling firearms, moments before a reserve deputy shot and killed him.

Eric Harris during a police sting that caught him illegally selling firearms, moments before a reserve deputy shot and killed him.

Bates's participation in a sting operation doesn't sound much like how the Tulsa County Sheriff's Office website describes its reserve deputy program. The site reads, "Reserve deputies work in all areas of TCSO, as well as at many special events throughout the year," and lists the Special Olympics and Tulsa State Fair among such events.

A subset of these volunteers, who are classified as "advanced reserve," have completed at least 320 hours of training with the Council on Law Enforcement Education and 48 hours of TCSO Field Officer training, and offer 40 hours of service every six months to maintain the status.

Clark, who told the Tulsa World early this week that Bates was classified as "advance reserve," said this designation lets reserve deputies "do anything a full-time deputy can do."

In light of reports that Bates's training records were falsified, it's now unknown whether he actually earned this status and what training he actually had.

But according to Clark, even a deputy with "advanced reserve" status would have been assigned to a support role — not participating in Harris's actual arrest like Bates did.

So regardless of his designation, while it makes sense that Bates might have been present for Harris's arrest, it's unclear why he thought it was his job to use any weapon against Harris, especially when the man was being restrained by other officers.

There's a lot of speculation that he may have paid to get involved in this type of work

There's been a lot of speculation about whether Bates — formally or informally — paid for his position with the sheriff's department.

This wouldn't be unheard of. Salon reported in October 2014 that some departments openly ask for donations in exchange for reserve posts, with Oakley, Michigan, for example, asking volunteers for $1,200. ("One qualifies for this prestigious program simply by paying $1,200 to the police department. In return, you'll get a uniform, bulletproof vest and gun. For an additional donation, you'll get a police badge and the right to carry your gun basically anywhere in the state, including stadiums, bars and daycares," Joanna Rothkopf wrote.)

The Tulsa World reported that Bates gave $2,500 to Tulsa County Sheriff Stanley Glanz's reelection campaign in 2012 (he was also Glanz's campaign chair) and has donated vehicles and weapons since he signed on as a reservist.

Clark told the Tulsa World that many of the 130 reserve deputies are "wealthy people" and that "many of them make donations of items. That's not unusual at all."

But there's no confirmation that there was an actual price tag for reserve deputy status or that Bates had to offer these donations. Todd Burke, a professor of criminal justice at Radford University and a former Maryland police officer, said such "pay-to-play" arrangements aren't, in his experience, normal or expected when it comes to the hiring of reserve deputies across the country.

Reserve deputies like Bates exist mostly because law enforcement officers sometimes don't have the resources they need

(Shutterstock)

(Shutterstock)

Reserve deputy programs aren't just created so people like Bates can have fun, or so that they can have an excuse to wear a uniform and carry a gun. "Now, you can always have someone who's a cop wannabe, who's always wanted to be a police officer and for whatever reason didn't go through the process, but most people are just civic-minded," Burke said.

And while people have a variety of reasons for joining, a main reason jurisdictions value the programs is that they provide free law enforcement staffing to communities who often really need the extra manpower.

What reserve deputies are tasked with depends upon the needs of each particular department. While a lot of their work, especially in urban areas, has to do with things like directing traffic and handling crowd control at public events, Burke said that in rural areas they often play more central roles. "Going to a domestic dispute, for example, the closest backup may be a reserve police officer. So some communities really rely on them," he said, explaining that they're often indistinguishable to community members who don't inspect their badges, and largely embraced by their full-time colleagues even though they're technically less qualified for the job.

"From a police officer's perspective, there's probably going to be this little bit of, ‘Well, you didn't quite go through the training I went through, but in a fight I appreciate you being here,'" he said.

Frank G. Scafidi, the director of public affairs for the National Insurance Crime Bureau and a former full-time deputy sheriff in LA, said skill levels and professionalism vary, as some reserve deputies work the minimum time necessary to maintain their status while others are more valuable because they "work many days each month and are really quite competent and effective — and provide a tremendous gift to their local taxpayers."

Tulsa's entire reserve deputy program is under scrutiny

(Tulsa World)

(Tulsa World)

Days after a Tulsa World editorial called for a "thorough review" of the reserve deputy program in light of Harris's death, the Tulsa County Sheriff's Office has announced pans to conduct an internal review.

"As with any critical incident, we are doing an internal review of our program and policy to determine if any changes need to take place," Clark told the Tulsa World.

But Burke says it's hard to separate concerns about reserve deputies from concerns about law enforcement conduct in general. "They're scrutinized when you have an incident that's problematic," he said, "but, as we're watching around the nation, look what's going on with full-time police officers."