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Sheriff's volunteers gain full authority
Melanee Emmett, 28, joined the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office reserve about a year ago. As a probation and parole officer, she said the volunteer post gives her a taste of the full range of law enforcement.

For volunteers in the Yellowstone County Sheriff's Reserve, a gun and badge come with something else, too - the full range of responsibilities of any regular deputy.

Monty Wallis put that notion to the test early on March 16, 1997, when he spotted a plume of smoke over downtown Billings while returning from a patrol and followed it to the source: a burning building at First Avenue North and North 24th Street.

Wallis, an executive at KTVQ, charged into the building and helped evacuate 11 people sleeping in apartments on the second floor, a feat that earned him the department's inaugural Medal of Distinction.

"It's probably not the safest thing you could ever volunteer to do, but it certainly has its rewards," said Wallis, who joined the force in 1993.

For more than 30 years, the sheriff's office has relied on reservists like Wallis to round out the regular patrol force and temporarily fill key vacancies throughout the department, such as assisting in administrative tasks or serving at the Yellowstone County Detention Facility.

The volunteers also help the department fill requests for extra-duty security detail at private and public events, an under-recognized community benefit that required 400 hours of service in October and November alone, administrative coordinator Mary Matteson said.

"We have a great supplemental force in these volunteers," Sheriff Chuck Maxwell said. "They're volunteering thousands and thousands of hours to great financial benefit."

Only the extra-duty assignments generate pay for the reservists.

Volunteers must meet the same standards as full-time deputies and complete the same training requirements, including a 120-hour law enforcement academy. Classes are taught by current deputies on a volunteer basis to help limit expenses related to the program.

The rigorous standards tend to narrow the field of interested applicants, and the reserve division is usually limited to 25 to 50 officers during any given year, Maxwell said. To remain on the roster, each must work at least eight hours of patrol per month, though some have been known to serve well above the mandatory minimum, he said.

Melanee Emmett, 28, joined the reserve about a year ago. As a probation and parole officer, she said the volunteer post gives her a taste of the full range of law enforcement.

"I enjoy getting to know the officers and getting to know the public," Emmett said. "It's a way to get involved with the community (in a way) that makes a difference."

Wallis said the work has been challenging, introducing him to an element of the community not everyone wants to acknowledge but also to the satisfaction of helping the "average person" who becomes the victim of crime.

"I've always had an interest in being in law enforcement, ever since I was young," he said. "This was a way, in my old age, to do that."

The reserve division also serves as a valuable recruitment tool for the sheriff's office, allowing potential deputies to get a taste of the job, while supervisors get a glimpse of how well the reservists cooperate with fellow deputies and the public, Maxwell said. A substantial portion of the department's ranks started out as reservists, he said.

Contact Lance Benzel at lbenzel@billingsgazette.com or 657-1357.

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