They have guns, wear badges and patrol Michigan’s streets.
They're even in uniform. But they’re not real cops.
Across Michigan, police departments have enlisted civilians to work alongside licensed officers to patrol communities and even assist real cops with arrests. But unlike the regular officers licensed by the state, these armed civilians are unregulated.
A Detroit Free Press investigation found there are no state-established training requirements for reserve officers, as they are commonly known; no standards for screening their qualifications, and no process for monitoring their conduct. The state agency responsible for police licensing and training is not regulating reserve officers — despite gaining authority last year to do just that — and has no idea how many such unlicensed volunteers there are statewide.
This lack of oversight continues despite numerous incidents of questionable — even illegal — conduct by reserve officers in recent years.
There are more than 3,000 civilian officers in Michigan. Other states have them, too, and some set training standards and regulations. Michigan does not.Brian McNamara, Detroit Free Press
The Free Press found a convicted felon who could not legally carry a gun actually patrolled as an armed reserve police officer in Highland Park, the former leader of a hate group volunteered as a reserve with western Michigan police agencies, and a Flint reserve officer was convicted after running a vigilante force that once illegally detained teens, holding them at gunpoint.
The Free Press investigation also found:
- There are about 3,000 unlicensed civilians supplementing the ranks of law enforcement agencies across Michigan, based on information compiled by the newspaper through Freedom of Information Act requests filed last year. Most are considered reserves or auxiliary officers, but the newspaper also identified other unlicensed civilians, such as members of sheriff’s posses and mounted and marine units. It is believed to be the first such accounting of this group of officers.
- Michigan has fallen behind other states that have already implemented standards for reserve officers. The responsibility to set training requirements in Michigan falls to MCOLES, the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards — but the agency has no immediate plans to take on such a task, despite gaining the authority to do so nearly two years ago.
- Responsibilities of these civilians, who are mostly unpaid volunteers, vary widely — from serving as the partners of licensed cops on patrol to riding horses in parades in units that are, generally, ceremonial.
Many reserve officers serve the public well, helping out with things like traffic control, crowd security and even on patrol with licensed officers. And despite the lack of statewide requirements, it is common for police departments in Michigan to require reserve officers go through some kind of training, but typically it is not up to the level of a licensed officer. Critics say not having state oversight and rules that govern training is problematic and puts reserve officers and citizens at risk.
“You have a person carrying a gun who can take someone’s life in the right circumstances, someone who has a badge and authority, who can take away their personal freedoms against the Constitution,” said David Harvey, former executive director of MCOLES, who successfully lobbied the Legislature before his retirement to grant MCOLES the authority to set standards for reserves.
“That’s a lot of power, just as much as a doctor has when they have a scalpel leaning over you. You wouldn’t have an untrained person opening up your gut.”
The law granting authority to MCOLES to regulate reserve cops went into effect Jan. 2, 2017.
But MCOLES officials say they have been deluged by other responsibilities, including doing a lengthy analysis of the work licensed cops across Michigan are performing and looking into standards for school resource officers, MCOLES Executive Director Tim Bourgeois said in a recent interview. MCOLES also has a budget that has been chopped dramatically over the years.
Bourgeois said the commission wants to set standards and rules for reserve officers, but it’s unclear when that will happen.
“I think there’s a feeling that the way reserves are being used is not necessarily uniform across the state," Bourgeois said. "There is no standard for training. And the responsibilities that they’re given vary. And I think there’s just a general belief that, based on some of the earlier media reports, that that deserves a look to see if that’s an area that needs to be more closely regulated and standardized.”
Bourgeois said other issues, though, have taken precedence.
“We just simply haven’t had time to get to it yet,” he said.
Several other states, including Nevada and California, have rules that govern how much authority reserve officers have and how many hours of training they are required to go through before they can patrol communities.
Nationally, incidents involving reserve officers have drawn scrutiny.
A former reserve deputy in Oklahoma was convicted after a 2015 incident in which he said he confused his handgun for his Taser and fatally shot an unarmed man who was at his feet. Also this year, a California teacher who moonlighted as a reserve officer accidentally fired a gunshot inside of a high school classroom while teaching about public safety and an Indiana reserve officer was booted from the force after initiating a controversial arrest at an apartment complex where he worked as a security guard.
Police officers are trained to make important decisions under stressful conditions and, sometimes, the choices they make are the difference between life and death. Given this, reserve officers should have to go through the same rigorous training as licensed cops, said W. Craig Hartley Jr., executive director of the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, a national organization that establishes standards for law enforcement.
“When they have to make a decision about arrest, shoot-don’t shoot, search or seizure, they often have to make these decisions independently, even if they’re operating under the direction of somebody else,” Hartley said. In that kind of environment, he said, “it’s almost impossible to say 'stop, let me ask somebody else what I’m going to do.'
“Sometimes the consequences of those actions are pretty devastating.”
More than 3,000
As of late 2017, there were more than 3,000 civilians helping police forces in towns, cities and counties across Michigan.
To get a rough estimate of how many unlicensed civilians were performing police work in the state, the Free Press sent Freedom of Information Act requests to every police agency asking for rosters — a review believed to be the first of its kind.
Most agencies provided the information. Some refused, citing state laws that exempt the release of certain information about police officers. That includes the Saginaw County Sheriff’s Office, which, at one time, had 85 civilian officers, according to a media report and the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office, which boasts on its website that it has a reserve deputy unit and nonprofit reserve officers foundation.
Some agencies say their reserves are used primarily for tasks like directing traffic and working security at events. But others partner reserve officers with licensed cops to do patrols, go on raids, assist on investigations and, sometimes, help make arrests.
Reserves do not have law enforcement authority unless they are paired with a licensed officer who does, officials said.
Many reserve officers have a genuine interest in serving their communities or in learning more about policing before deciding to go to an academy. The reserves that concern law enforcement professionals are the thrill seekers — who sometimes work in communities far from the ones where they live.
“People who thought it was an adventure. And were in it for the excitement,” said Harvey, the former MCOLES executive director who had reserve officers years ago when he was police chief in Garden City. “That’s who I didn’t want.”
Former Inkster Auxiliary Officer John Zieleniewski testified during the trial of former Inkster police officer William Melendez in 2015. (Photo: Regina H. Boone, Detroit Free Press)
Some troubles in Michigan
Inkster reserve officer John Zieleniewski was there the night Officer William Melendez beat motorist Floyd Dent — an action that cost the city nearly $1.4 million and landed Melendez in prison. Zieleniewski, who Inkster said is no longer an auxiliary officer, as they are called there, can be seen in the dash cam video helping Melendez yank Dent from the driver’s seat.
When Zieleniewski testified at Melendez’s trial, he admitted in testimony that he had used a racial slur in multiple text messages about the community’s black residents.
Attempts to reach Zieleniewski for comment were unsuccessful.
Over in Highland Park, which is only about 3 square miles, the police department has about 35 licensed full- and part-time officers and, as of July, had 55 reserve officers. In recent years, Highland Park had a reserve officer fire a gun into the air three times during a dispute while off duty and another had a run-in with Dearborn police while off duty and working security at a bar.
Highland Park once had its own reserve officer academy. City officials have said the program is no longer active.
Highland Park Police Chief Chester Logan, who began working for the city after the academy was shut down, confirmed the department has been investigating issues with the program.
Jervis Daniel was still on parole for a 2003 home invasion when he successfully completed Highland Park's reserve training program in May 2014. Daniel, the certificate reads, “met all requirements as prescribed by the Highland Park Law Enforcement Training Center” to become a reserve officer.
Except Daniel was a felon.
In a recent interview with the Free Press from state prison, where he is serving time for a parole violation, Daniel said he spent nearly $700 to take the training program and thousands more on equipment and uniforms.
As a felon, he was not allowed to possess a gun. But he did as he walked the beat, responded to calls and assisted licensed cops.
Daniel said there were times when reserve officers, working on their own, handcuffed people at scenes and conducted traffic stops, then had to wait for a licensed officer to arrive.
Records show that Daniel at some point had stopped reporting to his parole agent and in August 2014 Detroit police officers knocked on his door to arrest him. During that arrest, officers discovered his Glock pistol and Highland Park police badge. Daniel told them he was a reserve, but the officers thought the badge was stolen and that he was impersonating a cop.
Daniel told authorities he had paid to attend the reserve academy and told them he had been to prison. He said the academy ran a criminal history background check and “told me that because that was some years ago that it would be OK,” according to a Michigan Department of Corrections parole violation report.
Daniel — who found himself facing another federal weapons charge last year — told the Free Press he knew he wasn’t supposed to carry a firearm but hoped that if he did a good job as a reserve officer it would someday lead to paid employment with Highland Park.
“Everything was going good and I got addicted to actually being on the force and working,” he said.
According to corrections department records, Daniel said he thought he was getting his life back on track. “I honestly thought I had an opportunity to rebuild my life and start off with a clean slate.”
One with white supremacist ties
Twice, Barry Township, a rural community about 20 miles northwest of Battle Creek, gave John Raterink a badge and made him a reserve officer. He was a special deputy with the Barry County Sheriff’s posse for a while, too.
This, despite Raterink's history as the former leader of an organization deemed a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
For a few years, the Free Press found, Raterink led the Michigan chapter of the national Council of Conservative Citizens, which, according to its statement of principles, opposes the “mixture of the races,” “presence of homosexuals and women in the military services” and “massive immigration of non-European and non-Western peoples into the United States.”
Raterink declined to comment last year when approached by the Free Press, telling reporters: “Talk to my chief.” He did not respond to a telephone message this month.
Barry Township Police Chief Mark Doster told the Free Press earlier this year he had been unaware of Raterink’s history with the group. But Raterink’s involvement was never a secret: County records show he certified the group as a business in 2005; once led a march through downtown Grand Rapids; was written about in Michigan newspapers, and published a letter to the editor in the Kalamazoo Gazette, signing off as: “John Raterink, chairman of the Michigan Council of Conservative Citizens.”
There’s even a video on YouTube that identifies him as a man being heckled in Jackson by protesters chanting: “John is a Nazi! John is a Nazi!”
At one point, Raterink was on the national organization’s board of directors, according to the organization’s newsletter.
Records show Raterink was a member of the Barry Township reserve police officer force in 2014 when it was disbanded following outcry by residents, who questioned the training standards, the need for up to 35 reserves in a town of just 850, and the aggressive arrest of a local bar owner — an arrest Raterink helped make.
In 2014, Jack Nadwornik faced a two-year felony for resisting arrest outside Tujax Tavern, a bar he had owned for three decades.
Nadwornik had been celebrating his birthday with friends and urinated in a corner of his parking lot about 3 a.m.
Police broke Nadwornik's hand, kneed him and bloodied his knees. Two of the three officers who arrested him were unpaid reserves. One of them was Raterink.
After much public outrage over the popular bar owner's treatment, Nadwornik pleaded guilty to a reduced misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct. The police chief at the time resigned and the reserve force was eliminated.
Nadwornik sued and won a settlement, which he would not disclose in an interview. He said the reserve police force back then was out of control.
“You basically had people that were effectively untrained, driving vehicles, carrying weapons, doing what they wanted," he said. "A lot of us had the feeling of living in an armed camp.”
Doster later took over as chief and resurrected a limited number of reserve positions on his force. One of them was Raterink.
According to Barry Township board meeting minutes, Raterink and other reserve officer candidates went through background checks and interviews and all “met the criteria to become Barry Twp. Reserve Police officers.”
The board approved.
Following a Free Press inquiry earlier this year, Raterink resigned from the reserve unit.
“He is no longer with us,” Doster said in July.
Other states act, not Michigan
Barry Township isn't unique in Michigan.
There also was controversy in the village of Oakley, with its 300 residents and 150-member reserve force of wealthy movers and shakers; there was the reserve officer in the town of Grant, who had been writing traffic tickets he had no authority to write; and a Prairieville Township reserve officer arrested while in uniform for soliciting sex in exchange for drugs.
As the conduct of reserve officers made headlines around Michigan in recent years, MCOLES pushed for legislation, which passed in 2016, giving it the authority to set standards for reserve officers.
“I think it’s really important that we have a minimum level of standards when you put somebody out there representing law enforcement," said state Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, R-Lawton, who sponsored the legislation.
But that won’t happen soon.
This puts Michigan behind other states that already have requirements for reserve officers on the books.
In 2016, a member of the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training surveyed states about their regulation of reserve officers. Of 24 jurisdictions that responded, more than half reported they had state-mandated training standards for reserve officers.
California designates three levels of reserve officer, and each is regulated by the state.
Each level has required training, with a minimum of 144 hours for the lowest-level reserve. Those reserve officers, the Level III reserves, perform duties that aren’t likely to require them to physically arrest another person, including tasks like traffic control, security at parades and report writing. Level II reserves, who can perform general law enforcement but only under the immediate supervision of a regular police officer, are required to complete 333 hours of training. Level 1 reserves are required to have more than twice that amount – the same as a regular cop.
Jeff Dunn, a senior consultant and a regional manager for the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, said higher levels of reserves “have that authority to make use of force decisions and get involved in situations of a serious nature.”
In Nevada, reserve officers serve as an important crime deterrent in places like the Las Vegas Strip, where they are teamed up with certified police officers, said Tim Bunting, deputy director of the Nevada Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training.
He said Nevada beefed up its rules in 2002 to regulate reserve officers at the state level.
“What was going on before then, you had auxiliary, you had people called reserves, you had people called part-time, none of them had standards,” he said. “I’d give you a badge and pat you on the back and give you a gun and say, ‘Go out and do good things; don’t shoot anybody.’ ”
Nevada requires that people who want to be reserves pass a background check, a fitness test and complete 120 hours of training in subjects that include Constitutional law, probable cause, juvenile law, arrest powers, search and seizure, domestic violence, child abuse, ethics and firearms. Then there are annual requirements to meet after the original certification.
The standards are important, Bunting said, because a reserve can look just like a regular cop.
“He’s still wearing a uniform representing that agency,” he said. “In a lot of people’s eyes, they see a reserve, they see a peace officer. They don’t differentiate.”
In Michigan, some local police departments have reserve officers go through training programs like the academy David Ceci runs at Oakland Community College. He said the reserve academy there includes about 110 hours of training, covering topics like first aid, CPR, criminal investigations, firearms, hand-to-hand tactics and the mechanics of arrest.
Ceci, who serves as director of law enforcement training and interim dean of Public Services at the college, said the academy trains between 25 and 40 reserve officers a year.
“They get a taste and a touch of everything a fully sworn officer would get; it’s just not to the same scale,” he said.
Ceci, who used to run the reserve program in Lake Angelus, in northern Oakland County, said he supports regulation by MCOLES, saying it will help keep a level of professionalism and consistency in training.
Mark Boozer, a reserve for Lake Angelus and the Lapeer County Sheriff’s Office, has been doing work as a reserve for more than 30 years. He also said he supports the state setting minimum training standards for reserve officers.
“I think there should be minimums because, honestly, in a lot of cases reserves are armed and if you’re going to let somebody strap a badge on and a firearm, there should be at least some standard of training involved,” he said.
After the minimum standards are met, that’s when there should be specialty training depending on an individual's job duties, he said. Boozer said too many requirements could be discouraging for reserve officers, who typically volunteer their time and pay for their own equipment.
Corunna Police Chief Nick Chiros said he has four reserve officers. Sometimes they ride along with licensed cops, but primarily work during events, like football games or Fourth of July festivities, which he said draw thousands of people to the city, located west of Flint, each year.
He said his reserves receive training in CPR, first aid and firearms training and learn on the job from the department’s licensed officers. Chiros said he counts on the reserve officers and worries too many training mandates might become too burdensome for the volunteers.
“You’re going to lose good people,” he said.
Reserve officer Jeff Witmer, who is second-in-command over the two dozen member Taylor Auxiliary Police, said he thinks state-required training would be beneficial in Michigan.
Like some cities, Taylor already requires training for reserve officers. Witmer said his outfit puts applicants through 16 weekly classes.
“I think it’s a good thing. I mean, you can never have too much training,” Witmer said of possible state standards. “ 'Cause you’re put on the spur of the moment when something happens and the only thing you got to fall back on is training.”
A reserve for about 17 years, Witmer, 45, was named the 2017 Taylor Auxiliary Police Officer of the Year.
“I like helping my community, where I grew up,” he said. “I like helping people. I like trying to break the barrier of kids not liking police officers. … We’ll stop by if we see some kids playing and play with them or just talk with them. Let them play with the car … you know, to try to break the ice so they’re not so nervous around police officers.”
Experts: Background checks needed
Along with the training, experts said thorough background checks for reserve officers are important.
Ceci — who ran the reserve program in Lake Angelus, where the civilians primarily handle marine patrols — said before bringing on reserves, he ran their criminal histories and also did thorough background checks that included talking with neighbors and former employers, digging into driving records and doing home visits.
"Not every agency does that," he said, "but they really should be."
Documents obtained by the Free Press raise questions about the quality of the investigation the Flint Police Department conducted into Willie Strong before he was named a reserve officer in 2016.
Authorities said Strong, 32, ran a fake police group that patrolled, showed up at crime scenes, handcuffed civilians and once pulled guns on teenagers who had broken into an abandoned school. Strong faced a litany of charges, but recently pleaded guilty to one count of impersonating a peace officer under a plea deal. He was sentenced last month to five years of probation.
His attorney, Maurice Davis, said Strong had been running the group since 2011.
Davis said his client was concerned about arson and formed the group to fulfill a need he saw in the community. Asked for comment, Davis said Strong declined.
"He wanted to help his community, that was his main thing," Davis said.
Strong's involvement in running the group apparently did not come up when he applied in 2016 to become a reserve officer for Flint.
An officer wrote in a letter that he checked Strong's criminal history, driving record and spoke to a former employer and three personal references. He said Strong had no criminal background, was working as a security guard and everyone spoke highly of him.
Still, the officer wrote: "I recommend Mr. Strong for the position of Reserve Officer, but with reservation due to the short amount of time available for the background investigation."
Flint Police spokesman Detective Sgt. Tyrone Booth said he would not comment on personnel issues. Davis said Strong was no longer with the department.
Former and current law enforcement officials say policing needs to be thought of as a profession.
“Just because you have a badge, doesn’t mean you understand law enforcement,” Leelanau County Sheriff Michael Borkovich said.
His sheriff’s office doesn’t have reserve officers on the streets. He said he does have unlicensed marine deputies in the summer who went to a marine safety training school, but they are not armed. He said anyone who wants to be a law enforcement officer should go through an academy and become licensed.
Borkovich said: “This is not a hobby.”
Gina Kaufman and Jim Schaefer are members of the Free Press Investigations Team, specializing in criminal justice issues.
Contact Kaufman: 313-223-4526 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @ReporterGina
Contact Schaefer: 313-223-4542 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @DetroitReporter
To read more on police misconduct and other Free Press investigations, go to www.freep.com/news/investigations. If you have a tip that should be investigated contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
►Make it easy to keep up to date with more stories like this. Download the 13 ON YOUR SIDE app now.