YAKIMA, Wash. — There are times when Zillah police Chief Dave Simmons has only one officer patrolling his Lower Valley city.

“I’ve got staffing issues — right now I’m trying to put officers in the schools,” he says, referring to student resource officers. “Cops are expensive and the citizen volunteers are invaluable to supplement the force.”

Budget constraints have many cities in the Yakima Valley doing more with less, and police departments up and down the Valley have a history of relying on those volunteers, called reserve officers, to keep forces adequately staffed.

But reserve officers have been hard to come by lately because there hasn’t been a place locally to train new recruits. The Yakima Police Department ended its regional reserve academy about four years ago.

Since then, Simmons has watched his reserve ranks shrink from roughly five to only one.

“We’re as low as we’ve been in a long time,” he says. “It’s probably the lowest since I’ve been here, and that’s been 22 years.”

Other departments are facing a similar dilemma.

But now an effort is under way to build reserve forces back up. Several departments in the Yakima Valley have banded together to form a multi-agency reserve academy to meet the growing demand, says Union Gap’s interim police Chief Greg Cobb, who oversees the new academy.

“After several years of no (reserve) academy, the ranks of reserves for a lot of these agencies were dwindling,” he says. “It was necessary for us to hold this training to bring reserve officers back into the ranks.”

Reserve officers are often used to supplement full-time police officers when they go on vacation or during shifts when resources are slim. Reserve officers aren’t usually paid, but some departments may elect to award a small stipend or hourly wage, Cobb says.

In Toppenish, reserve officers are often called on when serious incidents absorb full-time officers, says Toppenish police Chief Adam Diaz.

“It gives us an extra set of eyes and ears,” he says. “It is important to have a good size staff.”

But running a reserve academy isn’t cheap, says Yakima police Capt. Greg Copeland. Each academy costs the department about $25,000 in overtime and equipment and takes about five months to complete, he says.

“They’re pretty expensive and time consuming,” Copeland says. “It costs a good amount of overtime to put that on.”

An increase in state training requirements in recent years, such as putting in more hours at the academy and annual firearms training, have also thwarted recruitment, Diaz says.

“In a lot of ways, they have to be just as good as a regular police officer, especially if they have to respond to a serious incident,” he says. “They’re actually empowered to enforce state law.”

During the 1990s, his department averaged 15 reserve officers, but now has only seven.

“There’s a little more time and money spent getting reserves,” he says.

Understanding the expense, certified training officers are volunteering their time to train reserve officers in the new academy, which is being conducted in a building that soon will house the Moxee Police Department, Cobb says.

“These guys are still working their normal jobs during the week,” he says. “It’s a tremendous commitment.”

The academy began Feb. 5 and ends June 11. There are 15 students and classes are held on Thursday evenings and all day on Saturdays, for a total of 16 hours a week.

However, the academy isn’t the only expense. Each reserve candidate must undergo a background check, a psychological evaluation and pass a polygraph. Add the cost of uniforms and equipment on top of that, and it’s a roughly $2,000 up-front investment departments must make for each candidate, Simmons says.

“And that doesn’t guarantee that they’ll complete the academy,” he says. “There is probably a 10 or 15 percent failure rate at the academy.”

Becoming a reserve officer is a huge commitment, Cobb says. Reserve officers must complete 249 hours of basic law enforcement academy, compared with 720 hours for full-time officers. Reserve officers can patrol on their own once they complete 500 hours of training with a full-time officer and display competency in law enforcement, in addition to completing the academy.

Once hired, reserve officers are required to volunteer a minimum of 24 hours a month, Cobb says.

“It’s a substantial commitment,” he says.

Diaz says his department for the first time is embarking on a police Explorer program that he hopes will build future reserve recruits.

Explorers are required to be between the ages of 15 and 21 and work under the supervision of a full-time police officer.

Toppenish currently is training 15 youths in the Explorer program, and they will be used for traffic, parking and crowd control at community events, such as parades and car shows, Diaz says.

“After a few years of being an Explorer when they turn 21, they’d be a good candidate for a reserve,” he says. “They would have already proved themselves as a valued volunteer.”

Many officers, such as 43-year-old Jesse Switzer, enter the reserve ranks in hopes of eventually becoming a full-time officer. He began as a reserve officer in Zillah in 2000. Even though he was hired as a Yakima County Sheriff’s deputy in 2007, he still works as a reserve officer in Toppenish, where he says it’s always busy.

“You get to deal with a lot of interesting people and a lot of interesting calls,” he says. “You go out there and try to keep everybody safe.”

Reserve or full time, more police officers equal less crime, says Granger police Chief Robert Perales, who currently has three recruits in the reserve academy. Two years ago, he says his small department was cut back to only three full-time officers under a different city administration. But now it’s back up to six full-time officers and seven reserve officers, including the three in the academy, he says.

“When your police department is cut back, you’re going to see a spike in crime — that’s all there is to it,” he says.

• Phil Ferolito can be reached at 509-577-7749 or pferolito@yakimaherald.com.