When Milton Alvarez reported his handgun stolen from the back seat of his parked Jetta in Forest Park last summer — along with ammo, handcuffs, and a bullet-proof vest — he had no idea how much his mistake would cost.
Within hours, the stolen nine-millimeter Glock was used in an execution-style murder of 66-year-old Michael Harris near the western suburb’s Madison Street entertainment district. The bullets in the gun matched the ones issued by the village police, which employed Alvarez as a low-paid and lightly trained auxiliary officer.
Alvarez’s carelessness cost him his job, Harris his life and sent police brass into a scramble to mitigate what is likely to be the latest in a string of lawsuits over police misconduct that have cost the village of 14,000 more than $1.7 million in the last decade alone, records show.
“They gave a loaded gun to a criminal,” Harris’ younger brother Roy Harris said in a recent interview. “All of this could have been prevented.”
Harris’ death also illuminates a much broader controversy about the use of auxiliary police throughout the nation. Many law enforcement agencies save money by handing badges, sidearms and uniforms to a civilian force of part-time officers often with no law enforcement experience and without the rigorous academy training required of regular police.
Most of the time, this army of under-trained cops works without incident in low-risk tasks such as directing traffic or standing the rope line at parades. But the practice has also been plagued by nepotism, politics, and questionable policing.
Earlier this year, billionaire hedge-fund manager Robert Mercer was stripped of his auxiliary cop badge in Colorado following media reports he obtained it after donating $135,000 to the local sheriff. And in Oklahoma, a 74-year-old volunteer cop was convicted of manslaughter after he fatally shot an unarmed black man in 2015.
A Better Government Association/NBC5 Investigates examination of records going back more than a decade found numerous cases of misconduct among the 900 certified auxiliary officers in Illinois. That includes an accidental shooting, a drunken on-duty car cash, an unauthorized high-speed chase, excessive force allegations and even instances in which auxiliary officers were hired despite having criminal records.
Berwyn, which shares a border with Forest Park, has the second-largest auxiliary force in the state. Taxpayers there shelled out a $15,000 settlement to a man who accused an auxiliary officer of placing the handcuffed man in a choke hold. The officer, contacted by the BGA, denied choking the aggravated assault suspect. Berwyn’s city attorney acknowledged the settlement but declined to discuss details of the case.
Forest Park has the state’s fourth-largest auxiliary force, and some of those officers have been accused of misconduct ranging from negligence to harassment to excessive force. In one 2017 case, Forest Park Auxiliary Officer Donald Bolton was accused of throwing a 68-year-old disabled veteran against a squad car, although the department found those allegations to be unfounded.
Another auxiliary officer, Francis Lane, was named in a lawsuit that stated he abused his authority as a parking enforcement officer by issuing 28 vehicle citations as part of a personal vendetta. The village settled that case in 2016 at a cost of nearly $56,000. The village shelled out another $50,000 in a 2016 excessive force case involving a sworn officer in which two auxiliary officers were accused of failing to intervene, records show.
Bolton, Lane, and most Forest Park officials declined to be interviewed for this report, including Mayor Anthony Calderone and Village Administrator Timothy Gillian, both of whom were longtime members of the auxiliary force before stepping into their current roles.
Forest Park police refused to provide records of any internal investigations, citing exemptions in records laws for personnel matters.
But one village commissioner, former Forest Park Acting Police Chief Joseph Byrnes, defended the use of auxiliary police as a low-cost way to enhance security. He said their presence is especially important along busy Madison Street, which is lined with restaurants and watering holes.
“We used them for presence,” said Byrnes, who retired in 1999 while serving as the acting chief. “Nobody looks at a guy’s uniform and knows he’s an auxiliary or a regular. Their job is to defuse anything with their presence.”
Byrnes said that in addition to firearms training, auxiliary officers are trained to use handcuffs and also are trained to guard detainees — work that is meant to free up full-time police officers for other duties.
Current Forest Park Chief Tom Aftanas, who in 2017 hired his own son as an auxiliary officer, declined to discuss the Alvarez case. “I have to watch what I say,” he said. “What I have to worry about is the possibility of a civil suit coming.”
Critics of auxiliary police say it is always dangerous to thrust civilians into police situations, especially when they are armed, uniformed and carry the aura of police authority. Among the most vocal critics are police unions, whose members are often charged with oversight of auxiliary officers, and whose higher-paying jobs are sometimes threatened by their less-expensive counterparts.
“You get what you pay for,” said Chris Southwood, president of the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police.
“We are not a big fan of auxiliaries because they are not trained,” Southwood said. “When a department uses auxiliary police officers, I think they open themselves up to a lot of liability.”
A throwback to air-raid wardens
Before his abrupt resignation, Milton Alvarez was paid $14-per-hour as one of Forest Park’s force of 27 auxiliary police at the time, records show. All told, half of the 900 auxiliary police in Illinois work in suburban Cook and DuPage counties.
The use of civilian auxiliary police in the U.S. dates to the World War II-era of air-raid wardens, and before that to the 19th Century days when local sheriff’s would form a posse to make arrests.
But more recent pushes to professionalize police departments have prompted a reduction in auxiliary forces throughout Illinois, records show.
One exception is northwest suburban Rosemont, which has the state’s largest auxiliary force, at times employing up to 300 to control traffic during events at the village’s convention center, Rosemont Theatre and Allstate Arena.
Some auxiliary cops are retired police officers, while many others use it as a stepping stone to becoming a full-time officer, according to police chiefs interviewed for this report. About 12% of auxiliary police in Illinois had at one point worked as fully trained police officers, according to a review of state records from 2017.
State law adopted in 2006 requires auxiliary police to have the same firearms training as regular officers. It also requires their uniforms to be “different and distinct” from regular officers, bans felons or those convicted of crimes of moral turpitude, and limits the duties of auxiliary officers to aid in traffic control, control of disasters, or to help in case of civil disorder “as directed by the chief of police.”
Those 2006 reforms were adopted to help address a growing controversy over private law enforcement firms using — and sometimes abusing — loosely drawn state rules regarding auxiliary police powers, said Pat O’Connor, past president of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police and chief at Moraine Valley Community College.
“At the time, we recognized there was a de-professionalization of law enforcement,” said O’Connor, who helped draft the new requirements. “Our members were starting to suffer with people who didn’t know how to do their job.”
But while the law detailed specific restrictions on the use of auxiliary police, it also gave municipal police chiefs broad authority to assign auxiliary police to perform “normal and regular police duties” when it is “impractical for the members of the regular police department to perform” those duties.
That long-debated ambiguity in the law has opened the door for many local police departments, like Forest Park, to use auxiliary officers to walk a beat alone in the village’s bar district.
In many cases, like in Forest Park, auxiliary police look like real cops. They carry guns, they perform foot patrols, and they are involved with suspects in police custody, records show.
The BGA/NBC5 examination of Forest Park’s force found even the minimal requirements outlined in state law are sometimes overlooked. Auxiliary officers wear the same uniform as police, with the only difference being a shoulder patch.
Internal correspondence obtained under the Freedom of Information Act also found Forest Park police officials acknowledge lax enforcement of state requirements for annual firearms qualification tests. Last year’s murder with Alvarez’s stolen gun stirred them to take the rules more seriously, the emails show.
“The aux qualifications got some extra scrutiny this year after the Alvarez incident,” Sgt. Tom Hall wrote in one July 2 email to colleagues. “In years past we’ve cleaned up stragglers after the submission to [the state], but not this year.”
Hall then ordered two auxiliary officers, a father and son, to the firing range before they could work the village festivities planned for the July 4 holiday. “Guys, you both have to re-qualify before you can work as an auxiliary, including the 4th,” Hall wrote.
The BGA/NBC-5 examination also found two current auxiliary officers in Forest Park with past arrests for marijuana possession. Others were hired despite earlier arrests for criminal damage to property and underage drinking. Forest Park officials did not respond to questions about the department’s background checks, or whether any of these previous crimes would be disqualifying.
“Irresponsible” doesn’t cover it
The pre-dawn murder of Harris in early June was just the second in Forest Park in nearly a decade. Within minutes after the shooting, police arrested 23-year-old Martell Dorsey hiding in a crawl space two blocks away. He had no gun, but records show investigators found two loose nine-millimeter rounds in his pocket and backpack, and a police dog soon sniffed out Alvarez’s stolen gun nearby.
Byrnes, the former acting police chief, said investigators believe Dorsey and Harris were working together burglarizing cars that night, and the shooting ended a dispute over divvying up their loot.
Police records show Alvarez later told police he left the Glock in the car because he planned to visit the shooting range later that day.
“Irresponsible doesn’t quite seem to cover that,” Sgt. Hall, who took Alvarez’s statement, later wrote in an email to Chief Aftanas.
Alvarez resigned a week after the shooting. Social media posts show he had worked at least once as an extra on the set of a television cop drama “Chicago P.D.” and now is a personal trainer and motivational speaker.
Before Forest Park, records show Alvarez worked part-time jobs as a police and fire dispatcher in west suburban Berkeley and also had been a high school security guard.
Only six municipalities in Illinois — including Oak Brook — give their auxiliary police all the powers of a regular officer, but they also require their auxiliary officers to have attended the police academy like regular officers, the investigation found.
Other departments using auxiliary police require only the state-mandated 40 hours of firearm training, in addition to an annual firearms test at the gun range.
Some critics of that practice — as well as the ambiguity of state law regulating auxiliary police — argue both are a disaster in the making.
“I’ve been looking at whether we should keep them armed — looking at the fact that maybe times have changed, policing has changed,” said Thomas Weitzel, police chief in Riverside, which is near Forest Park and has four auxiliary officers.
Weitzel said he limits their duties to special events, but he allows them to carry sidearms.
Richard Fairburn, public safety director in downstate Canton and a former academy instructor, said that even though he employs auxiliary officers at his department, police chiefs should not have such broad authority on how they are used.
“The auxiliary laws in this state are an accident waiting to happen,” said Fairburn, who has written more than 300 published articles on weapons and police practices. “I really think the door is open to something dangerous. We’re living on borrowed time.”
Brett McNeil is a freelance reporter based in Chicago.