Retired Fleming County Sheriff Jerry Wagner knows some current sheriffs rely on volunteer deputies to help supplement the ranks and handle duties that would leave an office stretched thin.
But, Wagner said, how often special deputies are used and how they are trained may change after a federal jury in southern Kentucky handed down a $6.2 million verdict against the Whitley County Sheriff's Office over the actions of a volunteer deputy.
"I think certainly things will be different than they used to be," said Wagner, who served for 25 years.
The issue of special deputies came to light in a civil case brought by Christopher Brewer of Corbin against the Whitley County Sheriff's Office. A jury found that then-volunteer deputy Tony Ramey was acting on behalf of the sheriff's office in June 2007 when he beat Brewer, causing injuries that linger three years later.
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While what prompted the fight remains in dispute, the incident exposed the fact that while sheriffs may have volunteers, there are few standards under which volunteers are trained and monitored and the only restrictions on their duty are handed down by the local sheriff.
"When you give someone apparent authority ... those people have to be trained and supervised like any traditional deputy," said attorney Hal Friedman, who represents Brewer. "Those people carry the power of the county. It can go terribly bad."
Kentucky law allows counties to have one special deputy for every 2,500 residents to assist with general law enforcement needs. The sheriff is required to swear in the deputy and log that person in a county clerk order book. Beyond that, there are few requirements, other than the deputy not be paid. How volunteer deputies are used varies from county to county.
A lack of guidelines is what appears to have led to the incident in Whitley County, Friedman said. Whitley County Sheriff Lawrence Hodge, in a deposition, could not account for how many volunteer deputies he had, and he said they received little, if any, formal training before being sworn in.
When asked if the deputies receive a formal speech after being sworn in, Hodge said: "Well, it's just the same one I do every time: 'Don't go out here and do nothing stupid.'"
Wagner, who heads the Kentucky Sheriff's Association, said how special deputies are used and trained will be taken up at the Sheriff's Association meeting in Bowling Green in December.
Just how many volunteer or special deputies are working in Kentucky is unclear. Wagner said the organization has never tried to nail down the number.
Hardin County Sheriff Charlie Williams has 10 on his duty roster. Williams said the volunteers are specially trained and have experience in areas such as arson investigations and Spanish translations, while five are retired officers who help with traffic control at major events and have no authority unless called by the sheriff or his executive officer.
"Training is done in their field of expertise," Williams said. "When called to duty they are paired with a full-time deputy for the duration of their tour."
The Jefferson County Sheriff's Office takes it a step further, putting 116 volunteer deputies through hundreds of hours of basic training and continuing education, just like paid deputies do. Lt. Col. Carl Yates, the second-in-command of the office, said the deputies provide help with major events, process serving, patrolling the Ohio River and working as an honor guard.
"There is no difference. A deputy is a deputy," Yates said. The public will "see a uniform and expect those people to be a professional law enforcement officer."
A few sheriffs don't use the special deputies, finding in them more potential for harm than true assistance. Daviess County Sheriff Keith Cain said liability issues and questions about being able to adequately train the volunteers keep them off his duty roster.
Harrison County Sheriff Bruce Hampton was more direct about not using special deputies.
"It is easy enough to get in trouble without volunteers," Hampton said.
Wagner said volunteer deputies can be useful, but must be given strict instructions and guidance.
"Anybody that's utilizing them ought to think about how they are using them," Wagner said. "Anybody working without strict guidelines is setting themselves up for failure."