October 22, 2014

Elyria
Cloudy
47°F
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Doing tough work, for free: Auxiliary officers help on scene, on streets

It’s an often thankless job, but greatly appreciated.

Getting called out in the middle of a freezing night to help cordon off an accident or crime scene. Praying drivers don’t hit you as you direct traffic. Taking guff from drunks while doing crowd control. Lonely patrols and routine subpoena servings. All the tedium of policing minus the action.

It’s all part of the job for auxiliary police officers, volunteers whose job is to supplement rather than substitute for regular officers. The work, nearly all unpaid, makes life easier for regular police who greatly appreciate the help.

“We have the best auxiliary police in the state,” Lorain Police Chief Cel Rivera said. “Other departments don’t have that advantage that we have.”
With 62 officers, the Lorain Police Department auxiliary force is one of the biggest in Ohio. The officers back up the regular department, which has 90 officers but 23 unfilled positions, often leave the department stretched thin.

“They do a lot of the dirty work,” Lorain police Sgt. Robert Brown said. “That frees us up.”

Auxiliaries in Lorain don’t carry guns, but can carry batons, pepper spray and Tasers. They have no powers of arrest other than citizen’s arrests, which can be made by members of the public.

Lorain is one of the few auxiliary departments to offer some paid duties such as directing traffic at the Lorain Municipal Pier or security at Lakeview Park. But nearly all of the duties performed by auxiliaries are volunteered, according to the Lorain Auxiliary Police Force Chief Jim Malick.

Auxiliaries donated 23,000 hours to the department last year, Malick said. Lorain auxiliaries must donate a minimum of 144 hours per year.

Area auxiliaries receive their training from the Lorain County Sheriff’s Office. The approximately 15-week program runs from January to May with twice-weekly classes of about four to five hours, according to sheriff’s Capt. Jim Drozdowski. Regular Ohio police officers go through 600 to 650 hours of training to receive certification.

Drozdowski said training for auxiliaries mimics education given to regular officers including training with firearms, drug detection, domestic violence awareness and studying Ohio criminal laws.

Drozdowski, a former auxiliary, said his agency’s 55 auxiliaries have been invaluable to the Sheriff’s Office, which is short on deputies due to layoffs. In one recent instance, an auxiliary officer kept watch on a crime scene overnight while investigators applied for a search warrant. Auxiliaries also did traffic control for the funerals of Elyria police Officer James Kerstetter and Sandusky police Officer Andrew Dunn after they were slain in the line of duty. The funerals drew hundreds of officers from around the nation.

“These people really have to be dedicated,” Drozdowski said. “They have to pay all the money for their uniforms and equipment. When we call, they come out.”

When called, Lorain auxiliary Lt. Dennis Alexander can be counted on to respond. With some 600 hours of time volunteered, Alexander is among the top 10 Lorain auxiliaries in time donated. Alexander, who joined the force in 2002, said Lorain auxiliaries understand their role.

“Our primary function is to observe and report,” Alexander said as he pulled out on patrol earlier this month. “We’re an extra set of eyes.”

Alexander, 59, joined the force after retiring from Ford in 2002. While he had been a private security guard and run a karate school, Alexander said he had no desire to be a regular police officer and joined the auxiliary force to help the community.

Alexander, who trains auxiliaries in self-defense, said they’ve never been in fights with citizens. Gung-ho recruits are reminded that auxiliaries do not respond to calls for help except in rare emergencies such as an officer in distress. Alexander said he emphasizes to recruits that while the auxiliary force does offer a few paid duties, it’s primarily a volunteer job.

“We stress you’re doing a community service and helping out your city and the people around you,” he said. “We have steps, verbal and written, for being too gung-ho.”

While Alexander didn’t join the force to eventually become a regular officer, some auxiliaries do. Nathan Alexander, Dennis Alexander’s son, was a Lorain auxiliary and is now a U.S. Marshal in Tucson, Ariz.

Elyria Police Chief Duane Whitely was an auxiliary officer before joining the Elyria Police Department in 1990. Elyria has 18 auxiliary officers. Whitely said his time as an auxiliary cemented his desire to be a regular officer.

“You definitely get a group who wants to see if police work is something they want to get into,” Whitely said. “Others just want to do something for the community.”

Alexander has been given a take-home police SUV — Lorain auxiliaries have 10 take-home vehicles, which cannot be used for personal use — because he frequently responds when called to accidents or crime scenes. He said auxiliaries know calls often come in bad weather or in the middle of the night.

“We don’t complain about it,” Alexander said. “We just do what we have to do.”

Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or egoodenow@chroniclet.com.

For more on auxiliary officers: Auxiliary officers’ duties vary across nation