By Eric Stevick Herald Writer
WANTED: Dependable team player for part-time position, mainly nights and weekends.
REQUIREMENTS: Candidates should be prepared to deal with angry neighbors, unruly drunks, grieving families and occasional backseat vomit.
TRAINING: Required, paid for by applicant.
UNIFORM AND GEAR: Required, paid for by applicant.
PAY AND BENEFITS: None.
That’s hardly the advertisement the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office would take out to recruit reserve deputies, but it’s an apt enough description.
Its best sales pitch might come from the reserves themselves who obviously aren’t in it for the money or glamor.
“You know that MasterCard commercial?” said David Scontrino, a reserve who has volunteered a staggering 18,000 hours during the past 30 years. “I think a lot of us would say, ‘Sense of satisfaction? Priceless.’ “
The reserves are a loyal lot. Many have been on the beat for decades.
Yet they are an aging group and their numbers are dwindling. They once had a roster of more than 70. Today, there are just 15.
By comparison, there are 272 paid commissioned officers and deputies.
In an era of ever-tightening budgets, the reserves continue to perform an important role.
“In the time I’ve been here, they have been an integral part of our office,” said chief Kevin Prentiss, who joined the sheriff’s department 29 years ago. “We’ll call them in the middle of the night and they put on their uniforms and come out and they aren’t getting paid a penny.”
That can mean protecting a crime scene when detectives go home to rest, or guarding a hospital room to make sure a suspect doesn’t escape. They also work security at parades and festivals in and outside city limits across the county.
Last year, each reserve volunteered on average about 400 hours.
“These guys are putting on a badge, a gun and body armor and are exposed to the same inherent risks as any other law enforcement officer, and they don’t get paid a thing,” sheriff’s Lt. Robert Palmer said.
Palmer isn’t one for hyperbole. He shares the story of a call from when he was a patrol sergeant about 10 years ago.
Palmer was the first officer on the scene. A man had taken a 20 gauge-shotgun blast to his face outside an apartment complex south of Everett. The victim’s friends — more than a dozen young men with no love for cops — were hostile. They surrounded Palmer, yelling insults, while he tried to stop the gush of a gaping wound.
The first backups to arrive were Scontrino and another reserve. They calmed the combustible crowd as Palmer worked to save a life until medics could take over. The man survived.
Reserves were introduced to the sheriff’s office after World War II, beginning with the South County Patrol. They then expanded to the north and east before being merged into a single unit. Often, they were known as the party patrol because of they frequently were called upon to put the kibosh on keggers.
“They outnumbered the sheriff’s deputies by far,” sheriff’s office chief Tim Shea said.
For many, a stint in the reserves was a springboard into a paying job in law enforcement.
Kathi Lang used her time as a reserve as a stepping stone. She attended the police academy 30 years ago. Scontrino was in her class.
Their paths crossed many times over the years. Sometimes, they shared the same patrol car. She remembers feeling a sense of relief when he was one of the first officers to arrive at a chaotic homicide scene near Mill Creek in 2007. It was Halloween. Many of those involved were dressed in costume.
“He was a good partner,” she said.
Today, Lang is a lieutenant with the sheriff’s office. She’s one of at least a half-dozen officers on the payroll who started in the reserves.
Scontrino was in the tire business when he signed up. He was managing a Goodyear store in Everett. The company encouraged its leaders to volunteer in the communities where they worked and Scontrino gravitated toward law enforcement.
Since 1983, he has been patrolling the south county, mostly on Friday and Saturday nights and often until 4 a.m. His 18,000 hours volunteering is the equivalent of nine years working a full-time job.
It has proved a welcome diversion from running a business and later overseeing the tire company’s West Coast commercial truck operations and serving as an account manager covering several Northwest states. Behind the steering wheel of a patrol car, there were no worries about sales figures or personnel decisions.
“I started doing this as a stress release,” he said. “I don’t drink and I don’t smoke. I guess my only vice is adrenaline junkie. It’s part of the fabric of my being.”
The reality is Scontrino spends much of his time answering routine calls to free up the paid deputies. He follows the book and takes his job seriously.
On a recent Saturday night, he was more than happy to grab a fender bender near Mill Creek, a barking dog complaint from Mays Pond and a call about loud teens at Picnic Point. He backstopped a burglary-in-progress call that brought several officers to a south county home where a mother feared for the safety of her children including a sleeping baby. Deputies later determined that the house was merely creaking because the windows were left open on one of the first warm days of spring.
As skies grew dark, Scontrino knocked on doors of homes where neighbors complained about parties. He gently cajoled compliance in a friendly, almost fatherly, way, including the burly man wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with “666.”
“We are not front-line troops,” he explained between calls. “We are there to support them. The county needs the extra bodies, but can’t afford to pay for them.”
Over the years, there have been days it would be easy to question why he’s stuck it out for so long.
He’s spent nights in fields after plane and skydiving accidents, keeping vigil for coyotes that may be attracted by human remains. There was the noise complaint at a Silver Firs home that led him alone into a basement filled with members of an outlaw motorcycle gang. (His exit strategy: “I just started laughing,” he said, “and then they started laughing.”) He once spent eight hours by himself in a dark garage when he was assigned to stakeout a chop shop. He waited and waited, but like Godot, the suspect never showed.
There also have been sobering moments that reminded him why having reserves is so important.
In 1994, Scontrino was routinely on the road on business for days at a time. One August night, after flying in from California, he got a call. He was told to get moving. There was an officer-involved shooting. Sheriff’s Sgt. Jim Kinard was ambushed by an ex-con, who also had killed a blind man. Scontrino lost a friend that night.
He called into work and explained that he wouldn’t be in.
He worked most of the next 40 hours, so the paid deputies could mourn.
Like Scontrino, who retired from the tire business and is now a King County courthouse marshal, most reserves hold down full-time jobs. They’re an attorney, a surveyor, a nurse, a probation officer, a crime lab criminologist, firefighters, a businessman, a Federal Aviation Administration inspector, an engineer, a machinist and corrections officers.
Then there’s Clarence Roberston, 77. He’s the sheriff’s office version of the coelacanth, an elusive fish that was thought to have gone extinct in the Late Cretaceous period, only to be rediscovered in the 1930s off the coast of South Africa.
Robertson was in his 20s when he began as a reserve in 1959, the year President Dwight Eisenhower began his second term and America added Alaska as its 49th state. Brier, Lynnwood and Mill Creek were not yet cities.
Roberston remembers the sheriff’s office had four patrol cars. At times, he was the only deputy on duty on a Saturday. There were no portable radios, no 911 and certainly no cell phones. Backup, if there was any, was many miles away.
“You had what you had,” he said. “Most of our training was on the street.”
Robertson said he won’t be running down dark alleys or jumping over fences these days. He spends much of his time helping the Snohomish Regional Drug and Gang Task Force and as one of the radio dispatchers at the Evergreen State Fair. He recently received certification to operate a telephone pole lineman’s bucket truck to install surveillance cameras.
“I’m proud of what I do, but I don’t go around bragging about it,” Robertson said. “It’s gotten to where I couldn’t imagine living a life not involved in law enforcement.”
Pennie Sargent is the lone woman in the reserves. When she was younger, she used to drive along with her father, a sheriff’s deputy who appropriately was called Sgt. Sargent. She volunteered with the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue in the 1990s before joining the reserves.
When she raps on a front door, she knows the people who answer it don’t differentiate between her and a paid deputy.
“It doesn’t say otherwise on my badge or my patch,” she said. “It carries a lot of responsibility.”
Tim King, a registered nurse at the jail, joined the reserves nearly 40 years ago. Some suspects he arrests he later ends up providing with medical care.
He remembers that his first patrol car was a 1968 Galaxy with a single bubble light on top. Today, he has four grandchildren and the same affinity for serving in the reserves that he had as a young man.
“We are kind of the quiet people in the background,” he said. “We go around unnoticed and that’s the way it should be. I just can’t imagine not being part of this community of law enforcement.”
The sheriff’s office plans to begin looking for more reserves later this year.
It’s not a simple process. Law enforcement is an ever-evolving profession with rapidly changing expect-ations and policies. Law enforcement leaders must feel assured that the part-time volunteers measure up.
There are background checks to perform and tests to be taken. Training is always a challenge. Some hope the county can work with other area police departments to offer a local academy.
Reserves still pay for their initial training, their uniforms and their gear down to their boots, belts, guns and handcuffs.
The reserves have formed a nonprofit group to raise money to try to defray some of the costs.
Regardless, it always will be a major commitment of time.
Despite all the challenges, Scontrino hopes reserves will be able to serve for years to come.
“It’s a serious commitment and it’s rewarding. It’s a sense of duty to the community,” he said. “We are not in it for the money obviously. There is no glory attached to it. Some people volunteer in libraries, some in food banks. This is what we do.”
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, firstname.lastname@example.org