"A serious arsonist on the loose. Keep porch lights on and watch for suspicious characters." That was the warning from officials last December, when an arsonist terrorized Hollywood. Night after night, fires were set - 50 in all. Residents were terrified and police scoured the streets. Finally in January, an arrest during a routine traffic stop. The arrest was made by a real estate lawyer working as a volunteer cop.
So, who are these volunteers? Brian Rooney has our story.TRANSCRIPT:
Brian Rooney: They carry the same heavy gear to work, and put on the same blue uniform. They have a badge, handcuffs, a radio, and they carry a gun. When they hit the street, they look and sound like cops.
Ali Bashar/Reserve Officer [to pedestrian]: Sir, sir.
David Vasquez/Reserve Officer: Get out of the street.
Pedestrian: Why are you gonna lock me up?
Vasquez: I'm not going to lock you up. Just stay out of the street.
Bashar: We don't want you to get hit. We don't want you to get hit by a car.
Rooney: They are police officers. But then again, they’re not.
Bashar: I've been a life insurance agent for 27 years.
Vasquez: Computers. I work with computers. Program them. Doing security on them. Making sure people don't break into them.
Rooney: They make their living at something else, but a few days or nights a month, this is what they do.
Vasquez [to car passenger]: You know you are in the red, right?
Passenger: Yeah, yeah.
Vasquez: How long do you think, five minutes or so?
Vasquez: Alright, if we're back like in 15, 20 minutes and it's still here, we may have to cite you for parking in the red.
Rooney: The Los Angeles Police Department, like many police departments across the country, is surprisingly dependent upon a corps of volunteers known here as reserve officers.
Bashar: It puts life a little more into perspective when you see the other side, that you see that people can be bad even though during the day at your occupation, you're normally seeing good people. So, you, know, it kind of gives you a balance.
Rooney: That, as well as $50 a month and sometimes all the headaches and dangers of a regular officer.
Bashar: I've seen dead bodies. I've seen a lot of blood. I've seen people get beat up. Stuff like that.
Rooney: It does make you wonder, who would do this sort of work for free and why? LAPD Lt. Craig Herron has supervised the growth of the reserves for four years.
Lt. Craig Herron/LAPD: It's a cross section of society. We have teachers, attorneys and insurance salesmen and doctors. A lot of people from the entertainment industry. They all want to be part of it. Because being a police officer is a great thing to do. Being able to give back to the City of LA that way is pretty important to a lot of people.
Rooney: The reserves actually include three members of the Los Angeles City Council.
Rooney: When they're in uniform, you're their boss.
Chief Charlie Beck/LAPD: Yeah, that's true, I am. I like to remind them of that too.
Rooney: The LAPD’s chief Charlie Beck is a big believer in reserve officers who carry a gun just like the regulars after they’ve had the same weapons training. The reserve’s 422 officers working a minimum two shifts a month are considered worth the equivalent of 100 full-time officers that would cost the department more than $5 million a year.
Beck: It is a lot of money, but it's more than money. I mean, the truth is that reserves give us this big connection to the community. And even though a reserve may only work two days a month, you know, they are a constant representative of the police department.
Rooney: But Beck has another reason for liking the reserves. He started as a reserve officer back in 1975.
Beck: I was 21 years of age, and I thought I wanted to be a cop, but I really didn't know. So, that seemed like a good idea. Try the reserve program and see what I thought about it. I found out that it was something that I not only enjoyed, but I was pretty suited to. So, for me, it was kind of a way to test the waters and see if this was what I wanted to do with my life.
Rooney: He may be the only big city chief who started in the reserves.
Rooney: The reserves were created during World War II when volunteers stepped in to replace cops who were off fighting. The call for help continues to this day.
Rooney: Now at a time when the department has little money for overtime, the reserves have particular value in big events: the search for that arsonist on a spree of 50 fires, the Oscar and Emmy awards and every month at the downtown Art Walk, where nearly half the officers are reserves.
Sergeant: We're going to be operating on channel 36 for the roving and pet control group. We have Queen 51 as Bashar and Vasquez.
Rooney: Even at a peaceful event like the Art Walk, there’s always something.Group chanting: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna Hare Hare!
Rooney: Marching Hare Krishnas. Occupy LA protesters. And a man who resisted officers when he tried to cross the street against traffic.
Officer: Sir, turn around.
Man: Calm down, calm down.
Officer: Turn around, turn around, turn around.
Man: Calm down.
Officer: Sir. You're gonna go to the ground.
Rooney: The reserves are divided into three levels of power and responsibility depending on training and experience. Level 3: Crowd control and large public events. Level 2: Street patrol with a partner. Level 1: Equal to full- time officer. But you wouldn’t know the difference on the street.
Officer: Are you gonna be calm sir?
Man: Yes, sir.
Officer: Roll you over and sit you up. Get up, sir, get up.
Man: I can't.
Officer: Get up sir, get up.
Man: I can't get up.
Vasquez [to officer]: My understanding is when we got him, he was walking across the street when the officers said "hey, stop, hey," to tell him. He pulled away, we grabbed him, resisting, took him to the ground, handcuffed him.
Rooney: You put somebody on the street with a gun — it requires a lot of maturity, responsibility, judgment. It's big.
Beck: It is big. It is big. But, our reserves have, overall, shown fantastic judgment. We have very, very few incidents where reserves get the department into any kind of trouble.
Rooney: In 2010 an off-duty LAPD reserve shot and killed his own son, although it was ruled self defense. Historically, the reserves have been dependable, even heroic. One was awarded the Medal of Valor, two killed in the line of duty. Although, reserves can be a source of trouble when policing mixes with politics.
Rooney: Former Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona, who left office in disgrace, handed out badges and gun permits to political cronies. Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who likes to bill himself as “America’s toughest sheriff”, gave badges to actor Steven Segal and Shaquille O’Neil.
Rooney: Not so in the LAPD, where the reserves get rigorous training.
Beck: To go through all the 700, 800 hours of training that it takes to be a reserve. That's a pretty big commitment. You know, you're not just somebody walking up the street to say "Hey, this looks like fun, let me to do it."
Crowd of protesters: The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!
Rooney: At the Art Walk, officers came close to a major confrontation with the Occupy protesters.
Rooney: But then the police decided it was better to withdraw after making one arrest. Maturity and experience help keep things cool. That man they handcuffed, they sent him back to his hotel, a little drunk but otherwise causing no trouble.
Vasquez: It makes you feel good. When you go home at the end of the day, you just, you think that "Hey, maybe this little section of my life, this world, this little part is better today. Maybe I'll have to come out tomorrow or the next day, but, today it's better. I left it better than when I found it when I came into work.”
Rooney: That’s what’s known in the police business as “the job. Tomorrow, they go back to the other job, the one that pays the bills.