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Understanding the Motivations of Citizens to Join a Community Posse Initiative: A Qualitative Analysis

Published onNov 17, 2020
Understanding the Motivations of Citizens to Join a Community Posse Initiative: A Qualitative Analysis


This qualitative study examines a community posse initiative initiated by the Clearfield County Sheriff’s Office in Pennsylvania in 2015. In this research, we aimed to understand the motivations of volunteers who joined the posse initiative and identify the factors that affect citizens’ decisions to contribute to a volunteer policing effort. To do this, we collected data through semi-structured interviews with posse members and also obtained official data from the Sheriff’s Office. The major findings suggest that participants were motivated to join the posse out of feelings of duty/attachment to the community, a desire to help law enforcement, and a heightened fear of crime. Findings of our research and its contribution to the volunteer policing literature are discussed and implications for future research are suggested.


The Clearfield County Sheriff’s Office started a community posse initiative to respond to growing pressure from the community in 2015. This initiative is a new volunteer policing project in Clearfield County, a small, rural county in central Pennsylvania with a population of nearly 81,000. The County Sheriff has planned to set up a community posse consisting of five different units. Each unit has nearly 100 men and women. The main responsibility of the volunteer posse is to assist the Sheriff in non-emergency situations such as searching for a missing or endangered person, seeking out evidence related to specific cases, assisting with riots and crowd control, providing backup for unlawful demonstrations, and providing community support for natural disasters (Czebiniak, 2015). This volunteer policing initiative was well-accepted by the community members of Clearfield County and nearly all available slots in the posse were filled by people living in the community from diverse backgrounds.

This case provides an excellent example of a recent volunteer policing initiative where we can analyze the motivations of volunteers and contribute to and expand the limited research stream on this topic (Dobrin, 2017; Greenberg, 2005; Guclu, 2010; Ren et al., 2006). Specific research questions of this study include: (a) What lead to the creation of the County Posse?; (b) What motivates citizens to participate in the County Posse?; and (c) Is the County Posse functioning as intended?

Lıterature revıew

Posse comitatus

The literal meaning of posse comitatus is the “force of the country” (Kealy, 2003). In the Anglo-American tradition, the posse comitatus power historically gives a sheriff power to summon able-bodied adults to keep peace and restore order in a community (Kopel, 2014). At present, county sheriffs have the legal power of asking citizens to aid in law enforcement duties when necessary according to each state’s statutes in the U.S. (see Kopel, 2014 for an extensive legal review). Even though there are some concerns and criticisms about using ordinary citizens for enforcing law and order (Levitas, 2004), sheriff’s offices around the country frequently organize voluntary posse units to use in different situations such as crime emergencies, non-crime situations (e.g., providing security, help to restore order, and crowd management), and search and rescue missions (Kopel, 2014). Traditionally, we see the sheriffs in the western states of the U.S. resort to the posse comitatus power to seek assistance from citizens while providing safety and security in their communities. For example, there are more than 20 county sheriffs’ offices in Colorado, which organized and trained volunteer citizens to serve as a posse when called for assistance (Kopel, 2014). However, there is an increasing trend in the institutionalization of a volunteer posse under the management of sheriff’s offices across the U.S. This brings forth the posse as a voluntary policing phenomenon and citizens' motivations to join under the scrutiny of current research.

Volunteer policing

Volunteer police are defined as “members of a permanent organization authorized by either governmental or societal action for the purpose of performing one or more functions of policing in an overt manner for minimal or no salary” (Greenberg, 2005, p.14).  Even though the U.S. modern volunteer policing is based on the British model (Dobrin et al., 2019), volunteer policing is a historical phenomenon in the U.S. where citizens played important roles in the provision of order and maintenance for their societies (Greenberg, 2005). Different forms of volunteer policing have emerged in the U.S., such as ”the Native American military societies, the colonial militias, the night watch, constables, slave patrollers, posses, anti-horse-thief, and detective societies, charity workers, and so on” (Greenberg, 2005, p.14).  However, the use of unpaid or low-paid volunteers has become a common practice in the U.S. local and state police departments with two main titles: auxiliary and reserve. While the western and southern states of the U.S. prefer to use “reserve deputy sheriff, reserve posse members, and reserve officers, eastern states commonly use “auxiliary police officer” to define voluntary members assisting their policing duties for the safety and security of their communities (Greenberg, 2004a, p.19). However, the phrases “volunteer police”, “reserve police”, and “auxiliary police” have been used interchangeably in the literature (Dobrin, 2017).

Bartels (2013) states that volunteer policing is an evolving phenomenon in the U.S. Four major events in American history have played important roles in its development. These critical events are World Wars I and II, the emergence of community policing in the 1970s, the 9/11 attacks, and the economic recession after 2007. During both World Wars, police departments experienced dramatic shortages in human resources due to military draft initiatives to fill voids in the military and ensure sufficient forces on the various fronts. To solve the problem, the U.S. Federal Government asked state police forces to train civilians to provide for security and  to defend the country against enemies, foreign and domestic (Olsen, 2001). Some police departments, such as the New York City Police Department, created auxiliary police forces formed by volunteer citizens. During World War I, increasing concerns of depleting police resources and the necessity of protecting vital infrastructures resulted in the creation of the New York City Home Defense League (HDL) and the recruitment of more than 20,000 volunteer citizens to perform routine patrol duties and to attend limited training activities (Dobrin, 2017). Similarly, several auxiliary units were established as reserve units for emergency responses under the oversight of the U.S. Office of Civilian Defense during World War II (Greenberg, 2004b).

The second major event of volunteer policing in the U.S. was the emergence of community policing as a response to increasing crime problems in communities during the 1970s. Community policing, as a volunteer policing initiative, demonstrates a critical philosophy change in American policing history. In the 1970s, social, economic, and political factors forced police departments to find alternative ways to fight against crime (Kappeler & Gaines, 2009). Civil Rights movements, protests against the Vietnam War, and intensive demonstrations against the government to end the discrimination and ensure equal rights for all people deteriorated the relationships between police and public (U.S. Department of Justice, 1973). Moreover, police departments started benefiting from technological developments such as patrol cars, radios, and other communication technologies. However, these technological developments weakened the face-to-face interactions between police and the citizens. To close the gaps with the community and to improve the relationship with the public, police departments have embraced the community policing philosophy and initiated community policing programs in their communities.

As one of the contemporary policing approaches, the use of volunteer police to assist with community issues often referred to as “community policing,” “community-oriented policing,” and “neighborhood-oriented policing” and became popular in the criminal justice field since the 1990s (Peak & Glensor, 1999; Uluturk, Guler & Karakaya, 2017). Community policing is defined as a new philosophy and strategy that aims to develop a collaborative partnership between police and citizens (Trojanowicz, 1983). According to this new strategy, police and citizens should work together to find solutions to the problems in the community such as crime, fear of crime, and issues affecting the quality of life. To create a collaborative relationship between police and community, both parties need to find ways to develop trust and mutual understanding. Rather than waiting for police to intervene in crime problems, community members should take the individual and collective initiatives to reduce societal problems. The Office of Community Oriented Policing Services identifies four key elements in community policing programs (COPS Office, 2011): (1) community partnership, (2) organizational transformation, (3) problem solving, and (4) crime prevention. In the literature, several studies were conducted to evaluate the effectiveness and efficiency of community policing programs. The results of these studies (Kappeler & Gaines, 2009; Rosenbaum, 1994; Skogan, 2009) indicated that community policing projects decreased the fear of crime in public and increased the citizen satisfaction of policing efforts. On the other hand, community policing programs also positively affected police officers’ attitudes toward citizens and increased their morale and job satisfaction.

People generally are willing to assist official authorities when emergencies and crises arise in their community. To provide better safety and security, police departments seek help from citizens. The extent of citizen involvement in police services changes according to the nature of necessity, context, time, and place. However, citizen involvement in policing has been expanded enormously not only in the U.S. but also in other countries around the world since the 1980s (Bayley & Shearing, 1996; Dammer & Albanese, 2013). Police organizations in different countries have started to use this innovative approach to improve their relationships with their communities and find alternative solutions to crime problems in their societies with the assistance of citizens (Verma et al., 2013).

The third major event in the evolution of volunteer policing in the U.S. is the 9/11 terror attacks of 2001. These attacks created a need for volunteers in counter-terrorism efforts from various professions (Bartels, 2013). First, this unprecedented tragic event underscored the need for volunteers during such a catastrophic event in the metropolitan cities in the U.S. Moreover, the new era of terrorism also created the necessity of revitalizing relationships with communities to get support from community members to become more involved as the “eyes and ears” of the police against terrorism (Lee, 2010; Sevinc & Guler, 2016). The Bush Administration created the Citizen Corps as a volunteer resource to prepare for and respond to national emergencies under the administration of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 2002. Under the Citizen Corps initiative, four federal programs have been promoted to benefit from volunteers in protecting the homeland and making communities safer and resilient against natural and manmade disasters. These programs are Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs), Neighborhood Watch Programs, Volunteers in Police Service (VIPS), and Medical Reserve Corps (FEMA, 2002).

The last critical event in the growth of volunteer policing in the U.S. is the economic recession experienced after 2007 (Bartels, 2013). This financial crisis substantially reduced the resources with which local governments had to provide services to their constituents. This created enormous pressure on police departments to cut spending and find alternative ways to reduce costs without sacrificing ongoing services in safety and security (Hilal & Olsen, 2010). Thus, police departments expanded their volunteer programs to fill the gaps in police service (Dobrin, 2017). According to the IACP Report (2011), there are more than 2,180 law enforcement agencies and more than 244,000 volunteers in volunteer policing projects across the U.S.  In addition, Dobrin (2017) reports that while 7 percent of police departments and 12 percent of sheriff’s offices in the U.S. employed full-time sworn volunteer officers, 32 percent of police part-time sworn and 44 percent sheriff’s office part-time sworn were deployed in police departments and sheriff’s offices respectively in 2007.  According to the latest study about the trend of using volunteers in the U.S. local law enforcement (Malega & Garner, 2019), nearly 36 percent of all local law enforcement agencies indicated that they benefited from volunteers in their services between 1999 and 2013. However, the trend of deploying volunteers is in the reverse direction between local police departments and sheriff’s offices. While the percentage of local police agencies has decreased from 45 percent in 1999 to 36 percent in 2013, the percentage of sheriffs’ offices using volunteers has increased from 54percent in 1999 to 59percent in 2013 (Malega & Garner, 2019). Even though volunteers are widely used in American law enforcement agencies, the reliable statistics for volunteer units and the exact number of volunteer officers are not known and unavailable (Dobrin & Wolf, 2016; Wolf, Holmes & Jones, 2016).

Motivations for volunteer policing

Ayling (2007) identifies three different exchange relationships between police and citizens: coercion, sale, and gift. While a coercive relationship between police and citizens  emerges when police seek assistance from individuals in specific situations defined by law such as mandatory reporting for certain individuals and compulsory cooperation with police for businesses, a commercial relationship  occurs as a result of a monetary exchange when police pay for services or expert assistance in a given situation. According to the current law in most states, U.S. citizens are obligated to assist police when requested (Greenberg, 2005). On the other hand, a gifting relationship occurs when citizens voluntarily offer their time, energy, and skills to police (Ayling, 2007). The first two exchange relationships between police and citizens are clearly defined by law or market principles, making them easier to understand. However, the third type of exchange relationship, often presented in the form of a volunteer relationship between police and citizens, requires altruistic commitment and is driven by different motivations on the part of the citizen to assist the police. This type of relationship manifests in different forms and various locations such as neighborhood watches; chaplains; car and foot patrols around schools, malls, and other public places; crime prevention associations; and citizen advisory boards (Pattavani et al., 2006; IACP 2016).

The motivations of police and citizens to engage in a voluntary exchange are inspired by different incentives based on their needs and desires. On the one hand, police departments mainly ask civilians to be volunteers to meet increasing demands from their communities without spending additional resources. Police departments also benefit from volunteer policing programs by accessing additional human resources with various expertise and experience, having individuals act as community liaisons for the police department, and increasing public awareness and participation in police programs (Dobrin, 2017; IACP 2011). According to Guclu (2010), there are four main ways volunteers assist the police.  These are “(a) the ability to help clear crimes, (b) prevent crimes from occurring, (c) maintain public order in difficult situations, and (d) provide services to potential and current crime victims” (Guclu, 2010, p.1). These activities assist in the prevention and investigation of crimes in times of reduced police force staffing. Moreover, Phillips and Terrel-Orr (2013) found that police supervisors did not see volunteers as troublemakers for their organizations. They thought that volunteers were making a meaningful contribution to their organizations' community policing efforts and were accepted as valuable assets for their agencies (Phillips, 2013). 

On the other hand, citizens have different motivations to join volunteer policing services.  Among the motivations cited as driving citizens’ engagement are an altruistic impetus of helping police, social activism, which manifests through engagement in crime-fighting activities for the community, and other personal motivations (Ayling, 2007; Choi et al., 2014). Volunteerism is an altruistic tradition for most Americans in which they can donate their time, talents, and treasure (Wolf et al., 2016). However, some individuals volunteer because they expect to benefit from this experience when they apply for full-time positions in law enforcement while others may be retired or ex-law enforcement officers who want to keep their connections and social networks up to date. In some cases, serving as a volunteer officer provides legitimacy and credential for individuals when looking for a job in the private sector (Dobrin, 2017; Dobrin et al., 2019; Pepper, 2014; Wolf et al., 2016).

In a similar vein, a plethora of research was conducted about the motivations of citizens to become involved in community policing programs. There are five main reasons identified in the research about citizen involvement in community policing programs (Garcia et al., 2003, p.3): 1. Neighborhood investment, 2. Social investment, 3. Attitudes toward police, 4. Fear of crime, and 5. Familiarity among neighborhood residents. According to Skogan (1990), citizens are more willing to join community policing initiatives if they have a profound investment in their neighborhood, such as homeownership, have children living in the community, and/or a stronger connection through a greater amount of time of living in the community. Social investment, defined by Garcia and his colleagues (2003) as “a sense of belonging to a neighborhood and the ability to rely on neighbors in time of need,” is another factor in citizen participation in community policing. According to Sampson and Groves (1989), social cohesion among neighbors positively affects citizens’ involvement in crime prevention projects in their neighborhoods. Attitudes toward police are another factor that affects citizens' motivation to participate in community policing activities in their neighborhood. Research also suggests that a positive relationship and trust between citizens and the police increase participation in crime prevention activities in the neighborhood (Scheider et al., 2003; Hawdon & Ryan, 2003).

Despite the positive results from the relationships created in a community policing environment, police departments have difficulties in persuading citizens to join community policing projects in their neighborhood due to mistrust and the poor relationship between the police and minorities (Grinc, 1994). Fear of crime is another factor that plays critical roles in citizen motivation to join community policing. Some studies suggest that citizens are involved more in crime prevention initiatives when there are high rates of crime in their community. Citizens take more responsibilities to protect their communities against crime and criminals (Reisig & Giacomazzi, 1998). However, other researchers suggest that high crime rates dissuade individuals from participating in community policing programs due to a fear of retaliation (Pattavina et al., 2006). The last factor, familiarity among neighborhood residents, positively affects citizens’ involvement in community policing activities because citizens show more interest in social problems in their community and put more efforts to solve these problems when they feel more connected and more cohesive in the community (Garcia et al., 2003).

The functions of volunteers in the U.S. law enforcement agencies span a wide range of policing activities such as routine patrolling (foot or vehicle), emergency responding, event policing, facility security and deployment at checkpoints, and even active law enforcement operations (Wolf et al., 2016, p.454). Malega and Garner (2019) found in their survey that even though 63percent of states reported some types of certification for sworn volunteers, certification requirements differ state to state and according to the type of local law enforcement agency (e.g., local police and sheriff’s office). Even though there is an increasing trend of using volunteers in public safety and crime-fighting, accountability mechanisms have not been established properly, and oversight mechanisms are not rigorous enough for volunteer programs in the U.S. law enforcement organizations (Fredericksen & Levin, 2004). Malega and Garner (2019) state that there might be unknown financial liabilities of using volunteers in traditional policing services because of their limited training, insufficient management, or corruption.

The extant literature profiles the volunteers in American law enforcement agencies as generally white males, married, college-educated, in their midlife (above 40 years of age), and employed full-time outside of law enforcement (Hilal & Olsen, 2010; Pepper & Wolf, 2015; Wolf et al., 2016). Previous studies surveyed the motivations of citizens to serve as volunteer officers within law enforcement agencies and found that the main motivations were to contribute to the safety of the community, to have an interest in law enforcement, and to join the regular police force in the future  (Pepper & Wolf, 2015; Wolf et al., 2016).

As summarized above, although volunteer policing has a historical background in the U.S. and become an important resource for police departments due to financial constraints and increasing demands for policing services, there is limited research studying volunteer policing and its motivations (Dobrin & Wolf, 2016; Dobrin, 2017, Greenberg 2005, Guclu 2010, Ren et al., 2006). Therefore, this research seeks to fill this void by analyzing why people participate in community posse initiated by Clearfield Sheriff Office in Pennsylvania. To understand the motivations of citizens to join community posse in Clearfield County, the researchers conducted in-depth interviews with individuals who volunteered to serve in the posse.


The data for this qualitative study comes from semi-structured interviews with posse members, official data from the Sheriff’s Office, the demographic and crime data from the U.S. Census Bureau, and the Pennsylvania Uniform Crime Reporting System.1 Using the case study as a qualitative research methodology is suitable for conducting explanatory studies to find answers to the questions of “how” and “why” in understudied topics (Yin, 2003).  The analysis depends on official data provided by the Clearfield County Sheriff’s Office and data from semi-structured interviews with county posse members and officials from the Sheriff’s Office. Demographic data for the citizens of Clearfield County and the members of County Posse were gathered from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Clearfield County Sheriff’s Office. The crime data for Part I and Part II offenses for the state of Pennsylvania and Clearfield Country between 2012 and 2017 were retrieved from the Pennsylvania Uniform Crime Reporting System.

Interview data for this study were extracted from 37 semi-standardized interviews conducted with individuals who were officially registered as posse members (n=35) (herein after “active members”), the creator of the county posse, and the current County Sheriff. County posse members were identified through a list of registered members given to the researchers by the sheriff’s office. Using a convenience sampling technique (Berg, 2007), the researchers selected potential participants (n=25) for inclusion in this study based on their availability.  In some cases, potential participants declined participation in the study, while others suggested other posse members who might be willing to talk to the researchers. This sampling strategy yielded more interviews than originally planned, resulting in a more directed sample (Berg, 2007).  Each participant was informed regarding the nature of the research and assured confidentiality. This nonprobability-based sampling was used for convenience and to increase generalizability.  In this instance, as noted elsewhere, the sample may show bias demographic characteristics, an acknowledged limitation of this study. 


For this study, two interview instruments (County Sheriff and county posse members) were created. Both interview instruments contained the same demographic questions (e.g., age, race, gender, education, and marital status). However, each instrument was worded differently to extract specific types of information necessary for the study. Each participant was asked the same set of questions, and probing questions were added as necessary to extract additional information (See appendix for the list of interview questions).

Interviews were conducted by telephone or face-to-face over a period of one year.  All interviews were audiotaped with participant’s permission and ranged from 25 minutes to one hour in length.  For those participants who preferred to meet face-to-face, interviews were conducted at locations of their choosing (e.g., home, coffee shop, office, or place of employment). All interviews were transcribed verbatim and analyzed using a standard form of thematic content analysis (Berg, 2007).  Thematic content analysis is conducted through using coding frames as suggested by Corbin and Strauss (2008). This coding process has three interrelated coding activities to uncover the motivations of posse members to join the community posse:  open coding, axial coding, and selective coding.  In the first step of our coding process, open coding, we tried to identify emerging codes in the interview data to group similar items according to their features and dimensions. Then, in the axial coding step, we identified subcategories in our coding data under the main categories to categorize the emerging codes systematically. Finally, in the last step of the coding process, we revisited our codebook to find the core categories for selective coding in our data analysis. This systematic coding process provided a better sense of explaining the motivations of volunteers to join the posse initiative.

After the interviews, the responses were collated and coded.  Specifically, responses were analyzed for common themes related to motivation for participation. As noted below, responses that included words or phrases emerged as prevalent, including: duty, attachment, or other connection to the community; a desire to help law enforcement separate from the aforementioned sense of duty; and a fear of crime.  A comprehensive review of the coded responses resulted in results that fleshed out these themes. To ensure the credibility of our findings, this research used the triangulation strategy of collecting data from different sources and cross-checking the research findings with research participants.

Analysis and results

Before analyzing the demographic characteristics of posse members, it should be noted that there is a vetting process for a posse membership that requires meeting certain criteria and passing background checks and other security clearances before joining the posse. When considering the membership of the county posse in relation to the demographics of the area itself, there were some similarities and differences. As shown in the table below, posse members tend to be white (100%), educated (High school graduate to Doctoral degree), males (86%), with an average age of 54 years. Furthermore, approximately 36% of posse members had law enforcement or military experience before becoming members, while nearly 9% of the Clearfield county population has military and police experience.  Interestingly enough, the county demographics show a decreasing population of white, educated citizens with an average age of 42. The main difference between the county population and posse membership is that females account for 48% of the overall population, yet only represent 14% of the posse membership.

Table 1. Comparison of demographic information

Demographic information

Clearfield County

Community posse




Age (Median)



Sex (Male)



Sex (Female)



Race (White)



High School Graduate



Bachelor's Degree



Military/Police Experience



Sources: The U.S. Census Bureau and the Clearfield County Sheriff’s Office.

Participants interviewed for the study (n=34) were predominantly white, middle to upper income males who ranged in age from 37-62 years (only one female agreed to participate in the study).  The educational levels of the participants varied from high school diploma to a master’s degree. Three interviewees held terminal degrees in their respective disciplines (e.g., physical therapy, law, and education). Therefore, the demographic characteristics of the total posse sample approached the demographic characteristics of the total posse population. By and large, participants were members of a wide array of local, national, and international clubs and organizations (e.g., Rotary International, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States (VFW), National Rifle Association (NRA)) and other civic and social clubs and societies.

The emergence of the County Posse

The county posse emerged in response to two major concerns. First, respondents believed there was a need to proactively protect their neighborhoods and community as the economic conditions worsened, and terroristic incidents around the country increased. Some respondents were quick to point out that in recent years, more and more “suspicious looking” persons were patronizing the local grocery and gun stores. Being a predominantly homogeneous community, such transients were thought of as “up to no good,” and as a result, fears began to escalate. Moreover, incidents of global and national terrorism appeared nearly daily in news headlines. As a result, county residents began to turn to the sheriff’s office seeking advice on how they could help the department make their community “safer.”

When analyzed, the crime trends for serious crimes (e.g., criminal homicide, forcible rape, larceny/theft, aggravated assault, burglary, robbery, arson, and motor vehicle theft) in the Clearfield County between 2012 and 2017 seem to parallel the overall serious offense crime trends reported throughout the Commonwealth. In sum, there has been an overall decrease in serious offenses during this time period (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Part I offenses for Pennsylvania and Clearfield Country (2012-2017)

Source: Pennsylvania Uniform Crime Reporting System.

However, as depicted in Figure 2 below, crime numbers for Part II offenses such as simple assault, forgery and counterfeiting, fraud, embezzlement, stolen property, vandalism,  sex offenses, prostitution and commercialized vice, curfew offenses and loitering, disorderly conduct, driving under the influence, drug abuse violations, gambling, liquor offenses, offenses against the family, drunkenness, runaways, vagrancy, and weapons offenses increased in the Clearfield County even though state-level crime numbers have decreased steadily in the last five years. This difference between Part I and Part II crimes gives us an idea about why individuals living in Clearfield County joined the posse initiative. As discussed in the literature above, one of the reasons individuals join volunteer policing efforts, including community policing, is concern about the quality of life. As seen in the crime statistics for Clearfield County and the state, crime numbers for Part I crimes have decreased. However, Part II crimes have increased in the county but declined slightly in the state.  Thus, Part II crimes, which are mostly related to the quality of life, may have created a sense of fear among individuals in Clearfield County and prompted them to join the community posse.

Figure 2. Part II offenses for Pennsylvania and Clearfield Country (2012-2017)

Source: Pennsylvania Uniform Crime Reporting System.

Second, respondents believed that there was an urgent need for a large group of “capable individuals” who would be able to respond to critical situations when called upon by the sheriff. Many were quick to point out that law enforcement officers, while highly proficient and professional, did not know the area as well as long-term residents and who could  be “called to action” almost immediately. A recent major flood and jail escape were provided as examples highlighting this need. The belief was that law enforcement, search and rescue teams, and other response agencies could have benefited significantly if they had volunteers at their disposal.

Motivations for volunteering

Motivation one—Duty/attachment to the community

An overwhelming majority of the participants (n=30) responded with words or phrases that indicated that they believed they had a duty to their community to get involved and participate in the county posse. This was particularly true regarding respondents whose family can be traced back through the generations as living within the county. For them, it only seemed “natural” to get their “names in” once the call for posse members went out. A 47-year-old male respondent drives this point home by stating:

I remember looking through the paper one night and seeing the ad calling for posse members. It was like I did not even have to think about it ya’ know?  I have lived here all my life, my wife lived in the area, our parents, our grandparents and their parents all were active in the community, so I am going to continue that as much as I can. It may not be much, but it does offer a place to live and a good community to be a part of. I guess I can give back to it right?

Additionally, those who were actively involved in other local, regional, and national organizations found it very important that they get involved in the county posse as well. For them, they felt compelled to volunteer even if their lives were already full with other commitments. Consider the following from a 55-year-old retired military officer:

It is one thing to talk about how you can help out, it is another to actually do it.  I am on the go all the time and have my hands full with other stuff (clubs and organization), but once I heard they were starting a posse, I jumped at the chance [be]cause I would look like an idiot belonging to all these other things and not being a part of this which is right here in my own backyard. I live here, and I should be involved.

Other respondents echoed the same sentiments when it came to having a sense of duty. While many of them recognized that the county they grew up in was not the same as it once was, there was a strong commitment on the part of posse members to do all they could to preserve as much as possible for “the next generations.”  For them, being a member of the county posse went a long way towards that end.

Motivation two—Desire to help law enforcement

In addition, words and phrases in the subject’s responses indicated the presence of a strong bond and desire to help the community. Many respondents believed that assisting “understaffed and overworked” local law enforcement agencies was important since law enforcement officers and agencies had been given a “bad rap” in recent times.  Respondents indicated that a community coming together to assist rather than ”disrupt” law enforcement shows ”the world” that the community and the police can work together. According to a female respondent:

Sure, there are bad cops out there, but for the most part they (police officers) are good people who are just trying to do a hard job. It makes it tougher on cops when a community has a sense of distrust. That sort of thing can paint an ugly picture to the rest of the country.  But, when you can gather hundreds of people together to be on call in the event of an emergency, people can see that it is possible for the police and the community to work together to solve problems.

In addition to believing that assisting police agencies promotes solidarity, many respondents (n=20) pointed out it was only natural for them to volunteer since there has been a history of good police and community relations in the area. Having a “good rapport” with law enforcement encourages trust and the willingness to help out when called upon. One respondent summarized this position well by stating:

The sheriff is a good egg. Yeah, he has to make tough decisions and arrests and tickets have to be made. But all in all, things are pretty fair around here and you do not hear about all the brutality, corruption, and other crap going on around here. I am sure there are those who hate cops, but I can tell you I have not come across too many who walk around saying ‘f*** the cops. There is a certain level of respect and it goes a long way. One hand washes the other I guess.

Finally, some respondents (n=15) volunteered to be a posse member simply because they had a friend or relative in law enforcement. These individuals felt some ”connection” to law enforcement officers, and joining the posse was one way they could support their family member or a friend in their efforts to protect and serve the community. A father of a local police officer put it this way:

My son went to college to become a police officer. Ever since he was a young kid, he wanted to wear a badge and help out the community. I was not for it at first since I wanted him to be a dentist like me. But it was his choice and since I have a background in First Aid and CPR, I thought it would be cool to support him by volunteering my time in the event something happens. I hope it never has to happen, but I will be right there if called upon.

Other respondents related similar motivations for joining the posse. While not having a specific background in law enforcement themselves, they had expertise in other areas such as search and rescue, water rescue, firefighting, and crowd control, that would come in handy if they were ever needed.

Motivation three—Fear of crime

A third reason arising from respondents' words and phrases when describing their motivation for volunteering for the county posse indicated a growing fear of crime that had developed over the past several years. Although the county is not known for its high crime rate, respondents pointed out that the area does not “seem as safe as it once was.” When probed to elaborate on this perception, one 53-year-old male had this to say:

This was once a very safe area. Now all you read about is drugs and the gun shops being broken into. I know a lot of guys who have had their hunting camps being broken into and the copper pipes being stripped from them. Heck, one shop owner in town had his place torn apart one night and no one has the faintest clue as to what happened. The police need more eyes and ears around and I am all for that. Have to send a message that crime is not wanted around here.

Other participants echoed many of the same sentiments. Although they had never been victims of a crime themselves, they knew of others who were, and that fear impacted their lives in significant ways. Many of them purchased firearms and carried a concealed weapon daily since the sheriff is “all for that sort of thing.” For them, joining the county posse was an additional step in assisting with the “crime problem.” In essence, a clear message that the community has bonded together to protect “their turf” can be sent to “wannabe criminals” who pass through the area or have otherwise targeted the community for their criminal activities.

County Sheriff responses

The county sheriff was interviewed to discuss some of the motivations volunteers gave him for joining the county posse. Validating the interview participants' responses, the county sheriff’s responses echoed many of the same reasons that respondents gave when posed with the same question.  In his opinion, those who responded to “the call” for participation did so because they had a genuine interest in working with law enforcement, had strong community ties, and were growing concerned about the increase in terroristic activities throughout the world and the United States. Although the county posse was not designed as a law enforcement entity, those who came forward to volunteer strongly believed that they could help if the situation arose. The sheriff summarized it this way:

Look, this was not designed to be a program whereby folks would be running around stopping people and arresting them. A lot of people in the community thought it was going to be like that and I got a lot of flak for even creating the county posse. We wanted a group of diverse people we could call upon to assist in the event of flooding, a lost child or other some emergency where additional assistance was needed. We made this clear to them right from the beginning.  They seemed to understand the limitations of being a posse member and that was a good thing. Their hearts were in the right place.

When asked if the county posse was functioning as intended, the new county sheriff, who was instrumental in the design of the program, indicated that it had run rather well given the number of posse members (N=500). He was quick to note that the posse had not been called “into action” as of yet. However, many posse members had been involved in special training for search and rescue, assisting in Relay for Life activities (traffic control), and participating in local parades and rallies for the 2nd Amendment. There was a situation recently that he could have called the posse into action to help search for a body, but logistically there was no way he could handle “all those volunteers in such a small area.”

The sheriff indicated that, for the most part, posse members have not abused their status as a posse member. However, when asked if any of the posse members were removed for just cause, he noted:

You are always going to get one of two bad apples and these gents (sic) were not necessarily bad apples, they just made poor judgement calls and I had to remove them. To put it bluntly they tried to use their posse cards to get out of minor traffic offenses and that was strictly against the guidelines set forth by my predecessor. They were called into the office and their cards were removed and that was that. 

The county posse is now in its second year and nearly all the original members have renewed their posse cards (n=460).  Those who did not renew their cards expressed concern that it “was not what they had expected.” When probed, the sheriff indicated that those who did not renew believed they would be “going out and assisting law enforcement more frequently.” In a way, he could relate to their “frustrations,” but there was never any promise that they would “act as cops and go after bad guys.”  However, there are plans to get posse members more actively involved through special training exercises (e.g., active shooter training), but such planning takes time and resources he does not currently have. 

Summary and conclusion

The current study examines a county-wide volunteer policing initiative in the form of a “posse.”  As the literature suggests (Bartels 2013; Dobrin, 2017; Greenberg, 2005; Fredericksen & Levin 2004), volunteer policing has become quite popular in recent years because of 9/11 and the economic recession that has depleted many law enforcement resources. As a result, law enforcement agencies have turned to the community for assistance and some communities have responded favorably. The County Posse in central Pennsylvania is another example of a community coming together to assist when needed. However, unlike other community policing initiatives, this particular community was proactive in approaching law enforcement as opposed to law enforcement reaching out to the community for help.

Posse members, who share similar characteristics with others who are active in volunteer policing programs, have a vested interest in their community, have a favorable relationship with law enforcement, and share the common belief their communities are not as safe as they once were.  For them, banding together as a group demonstrates that citizens can work closely with law enforcement while, at the same time, sending a message that their community is being watched and cared for. Posse members view themselves as the eyes and ears of the community, and that provides a sense of comfort even if they lack real law enforcement powers.

The county posse is not without its detractors. As indicated by the sheriff, some community members view posse members as “rednecks with guns,” “wannabe cops,” and “general troublemakers.”  However, according to the data, such perceptions towards posse members are far from reality. Volunteers are carefully selected, and if any use their status as a posse member for ill gain, they are promptly removed from the active roster. Posse members are restricted from engaging in any proactive policing activities and must abide by rules of membership set forth by the sheriff. Although the posse were called upon to assist in a natural disaster situation, lost child, or other such emergencies, posse members engaged in meaningful activities such as traffic control, public relation events, and specialized training events designed to prepare them in the event they are called into action. However, the true test of the posse members’ performance and their functionality can be understood after being involved in emergencies and taking other roles to support the sheriff’s office.

A study such as this is important because it provides additional insight into volunteer policing programs in the United States with specific insights from a posse program implemented in central Pennsylvania. If it is true that such programs are becoming increasingly popular, more research is needed to fully understand why people volunteer, what impact such programs have on the community, and how useful they are to other law enforcement agencies.  

This study illustrates the need for further research into the issues that arose from the interviews in this research. For example, a study could be designed to assess why females are underrepresented in volunteer policing initiatives as discussed in previous studies (Hilal & Olsen, 2010; Pepper & Wolf, 2015; Wolf et al., 2016). As suggested in the present study, the county had a higher percentage of females than males but had very few female participants. It would be interesting to determine why female participation is so low in this activity given the higher percentage of females residing within the county. Do females hold some traditional view that volunteer policing is a male-dominated discipline, or do they think that volunteer policing is not of sufficient importance to their community?  Other characteristics of the respondents, such as the respondents' political affiliation, would be another area of research interest in the future.

Another opportunity for additional research is developing a study focusing on the impact the posse has had on the community itself. As noted previously, when it was first proposed, there were members of the community who believed such an entity would create more harm than good, and accountability of posse members was a concern (Fredericksen & Levin, 2004).  To date, that fear has not been actualized. However, it remains unclear if such negative perceptions in the community have changed since the posse has been in operation for nearly two years. Additionally, further inquiry could focus on the community’s overall fear of crime. Once again, since the community itself approached the sheriff regarding their desire to protect their neighborhoods, it is important to determine what impact, if any, the posse has had on crime and the community’s fear of it. This future research could also investigate the relationship between fear of crime, fear or dislike of strangers, and motivation to join a posse in a rural environment.

A final direction for future research is to focus on the perceptions of sheriff deputies and other law enforcement officials and agencies about the posse program and the volunteers who are a part of it. The current study only addresses beliefs held by the sheriff and posse members and the positive perceptions of the sheriff seem parallel to the former research findings (Phillips, 2013; Phillips & Terrell-Orr, 2013). However, if we incorporate other law enforcement personnel and agencies, including sheriff deputies who have come into contact with posse members, our understanding of community posse would be greatly enhanced. While the county sheriff may view the posse as a viable entity, those views may not be held by his deputies and other law enforcement officers in the county.


Appendix A

Interview Questions for Posse Members

  1. How did you first hear that there was a posse forming in your county? {Probe—Newspaper? Radio? Friend or Relative? Other?}

  2. Describe, in as much detail as you can, the reasons behind you wanting to serve as a member of the posse? {Probe—Victim of a crime?  Strong allegiance to law enforcement? Sense of community? A friend or relative joined? Other?}

  3. Do you belong to any clubs, groups, or organizations?  {Probe—If so, What type(s)?  How many?  How long have you been a member in each? Any community projects that you are involved in?}

  4. Have you ever been called out to serve on an official capacity as a member of the posse? {Probe—What capacity?  What happened?  Circumstances?}

  5. What is your assessment of the County Posse? {Probe—Do you think it is having its desired affect?  What, if any, improvements do you think are needed in the program?  Do you believe some members may have joined for the wrong reasons?  Additional training needed?}


  • Age                                                    

  • Highest Educational level Completed           

  • Race/Ethnicity                                  

  • Occupation

  • Annual Income

  • Marital Status                        

  • Children   Y/N

  • Number of Children _____________

Interview Questions for County Sheriff

  1. What lead you to create the County Posse here in northcentral Pennsylvania? {Probe – Any particular incident? Heard about other programs?  Idea from others?}

  2. What steps did you have to take to get it all going? {Probe – Political obstacles/help}

  3. How many posse members are there currently?

  4. How were posse members selected? {Probe—criteria for selection—background checks, etc.}

  5. Were posse members given any specialized training? {Probe—firearms safety, emergency rescue, crimes code familiarization, etc.}

  6. Are posse members issued any badges or other forms of membership identification? {Probe – hats, shirts, jackets, identification cards, etc.}

  7. Has there been any public opposition to the formation of the posse?

  8. Have you had to use the posse for anything since it was created? {Probe – emergency situations, disasters, missing person, etc.}


  • Age                                                    

  • Highest Educational level Completed           

  • Race/Ethnicity                                  

  • Marital Status                        

  • Children   Y/N

  • Number of Children _____________


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Michael McSkimming is an associate professor of criminal justice at Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania. Prior to joining the faculty at Lock Haven, he taught classes at Gannon University. In addition to his background in teaching, he has 15 years of experience in the area of conservation law enforcement. His research interests include criminal justice ethics, criminal justice policy, and conservation law enforcement. His publications include articles in Human Dimensions of Wildlife, Criminal Justice Policy Review, and Free Inquiry in Creative Sociology.

Ahmet Guler is an assistant teaching professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminology at the Pennsylvania State University and Director of Graduate Studies in Criminal Justice Policy and Administration. His research focuses on criminal justice policy, policing, terrorism, criminal justice reform, information technology in criminal justice, and transnational crime. 

Scott E. Miller has served as the Dean of Edinboro’s ACBSP-accredited School of Business since 2012 and as the Dean of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences since 2014. Dr. Miller continues to maintain a scholarly agenda and has presented academic papers throughout the United States and at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom. In addition, he has published peer-reviewed articles in U.S. and international journals.

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