The tragic shootings of Auxiliary Police Officers Nicholas Pekearo and Yevgeniy Marshalik have raised questions about a lesser known part of the New York City Police Department, a 4,500-member, all-volunteer force that conducts foot patrols, inspects subway platforms for suspicious packages and helps with crowd control at major public events such as the New York City Marathon.
The auxiliary officers wear uniforms almost identical to those worn by regular police officers and are assigned nightsticks and police radios. However, they are not issued bulletproof vests and are not allowed to carry weapons, unlike the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which issues a gun to its 700 Reserve Deputies (who are also unpaid volunteers). The auxiliary police also do not have the power to arrest anyone. Instead, they are trained to report crimes in progress on their police radio and wait for reinforcements to arrive.
After the shootings, New York City Police Department Commissioner Raymond Kelly announced the creation of an in-house committee to study ways of improving the auxiliary police force. City Councilmember Hiram Monserrate announced that he would introduce legislation requiring the city to purchase bulletproof vests for auxiliary police officers. Councilmember David Weprin proposed a "10-point Auxiliary Officers Assistance Plan" which calls, among other things, for increased penalties for attacking Auxiliary Officers. In testimony before the City Council, Commissioner Kelly said the police committee on auxiliary police will seriously consider Monserrate’s proposal.
This is just one of a number of issues the committee will explore, involving how auxiliary police officers are trained, deployed, supervised...and protected.
From Cold War Calming To Crime Control
The auxiliary police force grew out of Cold War fears about nuclear war and was created in 1951 in response to the federal government’s call for a cadre of civil defense volunteers who would usher citizens into fallout shelters and help calm public panic.
In 1967, full responsibility for the auxiliary police was given to the New York City Police Department. The force’s mission shifted to crime control during a time of historic crime highs for the city.
Today, auxiliary police officers, who must be between the ages of 17 and 60 (older volunteers are still eligible to perform light office duties), complete more than 50 hours of training and are required to work at least 10 hours a month. For the most part, they patrol in squad cars, on foot and on bicycle, serving as a visible police presence.
In some police precincts, the auxiliary police serve a critical role as a liaison between the police and the community. For example, the Fifth Precinct in Chinatown has a thriving auxiliary police unit with 143 officers, more than any precinct, led by longtime volunteer Shuck Seid, who started the unit in 1969 because of his concerns that Chinatown residents were afraid to report crimes to the police. “When I started the auxiliary unit, there was only one Chinese police officer in the precinct,” Seid explained in an interview with the Downtown Express in 2004. “In Chinatown, there were robberies, rapes, all kinds of crimes happening to immigrants, and the Chinese didn’t want to be witnesses or to report things to the police.”
Public Events, Training, Inspections
The New York City Police Department also turns to the auxiliary police when it needs help with large public events or training events. At Shea Stadium in 2004, about 1,000 auxiliary police officers and Fire Department cadets served as fake victims during a mock terrorist attack. Fears of a terrorist attack have also re-focused the mission of the auxiliary police: two weeks after the London subway bombings, a new transit auxiliary police program was created to assist the police in periodic inspections of subway platforms.
The Two Who Were Killed
On the night of the shooting, Officers Pekearo and Marshalik were fulfilling the bread and butter mission of the auxiliary police, walking along Sullivan Street in Greenwich Village when their police radios crackled with reports that a gunman had just exited DeMarco’s Pizza on Houston Street, only a few blocks away.
Nineteen year-old Marshalik, a sophomore at New York University who enthusiastically worked several weekly six-hour shifts at the Sixth Precinct, and 28-year old Pekearo, an aspiring novelist, spotted David Garvin coming toward them and ordered him to stop. Garvin responded by punching one of the auxiliary officers in the face and then crossed to the other side of Sullivan Street, running north and reloading his gun. Marshalik and Pekearo gave chase from across the street, with Pekearo in the lead and Marshalik behind him. Blocked at West Third Street by three regular police officers, Garvin turned and shot both Pekearo and Marshalik and then engaged in a running gun fight with officers before he was killed.
Ensuring Their Safety
The obvious policy issue that Commissioner Kelly will confront is safety. Including Officers Pekearo and Yevgeniy, eight auxiliary police officers have been killed since the program’s creation.
Some auxiliary police officers, like Officer Pekearo have used their own money to purchase bulletproof vests, which cost between $600 and $700. (After a year of service, auxiliary police officers receive a uniform allowance of around $300, according to the New York Times.) In Pekearo’s case, the vest stopped one of the six bullets fired at him, but could not save his life. Commissioner Kelly indicated they he would consider purchasing bulletproof vests for auxiliary police officers, at an estimated cost of $3 million.
Clearly, the visibility of auxiliary police officers, whose uniforms and badges make them virtually indistinguishable from regular police officers, poses a safety risk. “The average street criminal on the run has no idea if an officer is auxiliary or not,” Steven Weiss, director of research for the Officer Down Memorial Page, told the New York Times. Yet high visibility, and the deterrent effect that goes along with it, is one of the main benefits of the program.
Outfitting the auxiliary police in vests, and even providing them with guns or mace as has been suggested, may seem like a solution to the safety problem, but it poses its own risks. With such equipment, auxiliary police officers, contrary to their training, could feel encouraged to engage in high-risk activities, such as pursuing suspected criminals.
Sharpening The Distinction Between Auxiliary And Regular
There are practical considerations to consider as well. In Los Angeles, reserve deputies are fingerprinted and given an extensive background check, including a psychological exam, before being invited to join. Los Angeles Reserve Deputies are also given the authority to make arrests, further blurring the lines between a “volunteer” and “regular” police officer and eroding the justification for the program, which is to provide a low-cost boost to the New York City police force.
An alternative approach might involve making clearer distinctions between the appearance and duties of auxiliary police officers and regular police officers. For example, auxiliary police officers could be outfitted in a differently colored uniform, which might reduce the chance that they would be placed in harm’s way. A more radical solution would be to remove auxiliary police officers from foot patrol duties entirely or require that they be paired with regular police officers at all times. Of course, this might not only reduce the effectiveness of the auxiliary police, but also discourage volunteers from joining in the first place. Regular police officers might also resist the idea of being paired with auxiliary police officers, particularly if the auxiliary police are unarmed and unable to provide support in a dangerous situation.
As Commissioner Kelly weighs the tradeoffs between visibility and safety, effectiveness and limiting the program’s scope, the mourning for Officers Pekearo and Yevgeniy goes on. Both received an inspector’s funeral reserved for officers who have died in the line of duty, with hundreds of uniformed police officers in attendance.
A friend of Nicholas Pekearo remarked: “He would have gotten a kick out of getting full police honors.”
Aubrey Fox is project director of Bronx Community Solutions, aimed at changing the Bronx court system’s approach to low-level crime. Â