Call-up of reserves leaves gaps in many police forces
Many reservists are public-safety workers whose jobs at home may be just as crucial to national security.
HOUSTON — It's happening in the hospitals of California, on the highways of Colorado, and in the prisons of Texas. All across the country, military reservists are being called away from their 9-to-5 jobs to help in the war on terrorism.
While these citizen soldiers can be found in all types of jobs, a large number tend to be in public safety: law-enforcement officers, border-patrol agents, prison guards, and medical personnel.
And while police chiefs and prison wardens say they are proud their employees are serving America during such a trying time, they are also quietly worrying about their personnel situations, many of which are becoming more desperate by the day.
Indeed, activation of military reserves comes at a time when protecting the country internally is as crucial as its external battles - and some experts worry that the diminishing ranks of cops and security guards could leave the nation more vulnerable during the crisis.
"Depending on how many are activated, it could have a significant impact," says William Bratton, former police commissioner of New York. He remembers how some security agencies suffered during the Gulf War, when a quarter of a million reservists were called to duty. "It isn't until you lose those people that you understand the importance of them."
Take Crystal River, Fla., for instance. This beach community sits about an hour north of St. Petersburg and is home to about 4,000 residents. The police department has 21 sworn officers, five of whom are in the reserves. So far, two have been called up - including the department's only full-time detective.
Not only has the town lost police officers, but it also has had to extend its patrol routes to cover important infrastructure features such as water reservoirs and natural-gas facilities. "Now we have more work, and less officers to cover the field," says city manager Philip Lilly.
The possibility that Crystal River could lose a quarter of its police force is forcing city officials to come up with creative solutions. They've rehired, under contract, a former police officer who was working for a local retailer. They've asked reserve officers to work more hours each week. And they're petitioning the government to relieve their officers of their reserve duties.
Nationally, 1.3 million people serve in the reserves; together they account for nearly half of the US armed forces. So far, military officials have said they need 35,000 reservists, and President Bush authorized the activation of 50,000.
But asking a reservist not to serve is difficult - especially at a time like this, says Larry Todd of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in Austin.
"We do it because we're patriotic," says Mr. Todd, who is in the National Guard. "If we are needed to answer the country's call, then, by golly, we are going to do it."
He is one of 763 Texas prison-system employees who serve in the reserves or National Guard. Almost 100 have already been activated, and 172 are on standby.
Todd says there is no threat to public safety, but some cutbacks have already been made within the prisons. For instance, outside work details and other activities for prisoners that require a personal escort have been limited.
"It's a strain, especially since we are already 3,000 officers short," says Todd. "We are just sucking it up like everyone else and having to work around it."
Many of these same sectors were struggling with worker shortages long before Sept. 11. So calling away large numbers of staff for military duty is causing even greater hardships. Houston, for example, recently became the latest city to approve the use of 18-year-old turnkeys because of its inability to adequately staff the jails.
Moreover, many of these jobs are fairly high skill, and thus not readily replaceable. "We are not like an accounting firm that can go out and hire a temporary accountant," says Jim Wolfinbarger with the Colorado State Patrol. "A level-one sergeant requires a great deal of training, and they can't be replaced that easily."
Ten percent of the Colorado State Patrol is in the reserves, 52 people out of a staff of 528. And while only seven have been activated so far, the department has already begun discussing cutbacks. "We are tightening our belt, and focusing on our primary objective: traffic safety," says Captain Wolfinbarger.
Some public-safety sectors are not only losing workers to military service, but to more attractive security jobs as well. The US Border Patrol, for instance, is watching anxiously as thousands of its agents apply for the newly created sky-marshal jobs.
"We are continuing to recruit, with the anticipation that we may experience losses or long-term absences," says Nicole Chulick with the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington.
The FAA hasn't finalized the exact number of sky-marshall positions that will be created, but estimates are as high as 12,000. Some 37,000 applications have already been received.
Even for those who aren't in the reserves, says Ms. Chulick, "the idea of giving back to the country is very appealing right now."