Preparing recruits for evolving law enforcement field

Physical fitness is a key part of preparing recruits in the police academy at Edison State Community College. (Photo: ESCC)

As the demand grows for more law enforcement officers, community colleges are stepping in with new and enhanced education programs.

In many cases, the officers who joined police forces during a hiring surge in the 1980s and 1990s are retiring, so there’s a need to fill those vacancies. That’s become a bit more challenging in the face of stricter standards and more negative attitudes toward the police, according to community college officials.

The retirement wave hitting police departments is a national trend, says Gino Reyes of the Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC). Due to the negative perception of the police in the current climate, more officers are retiring earlier than they might have a few years ago, he says.

Other factors discouraging applicants in the Milwaukee area, he says, include more stringent hiring standards in Wisconsin, the dangers of the job and the national focus on police-involved shootings.

Twenty years ago, a small agency with three openings would typically have 300 candidates; now they’d be lucky to get 100, Reyes says.

Law enforcement seems to be a less-attractive career option than it had been for previous generations, he says. “The perception and the reality is you’re going to be in harm’s way, at least in big cities,” and potential applicants are considering “whether they want to put themselves and their families through that.”

Criminal justice, however, is a springboard for less dangerous careers, he notes, such as social workers, forensics specialists and parole officers.

“Crime is never going to end,” he says. “These jobs will always be needed in a civil society.”

A new corrections academy

Grand Rapids Community College (GRCC) in Michigan recently launched a Sheriff’s Corrections Academy to meet the growing demand for employees to replace those who are retiring. The academy offers a five-week course to prepare students for licensing and certification exams. Students earn 10 credit hours that can be applied to an associate degree in criminal justice, says Jermaine Reese, director of the corrections academy and interim director of the college’s police academy.

The first session had 11 students, most of whom already worked for the county jail. The second session, to start in the spring, will be capped at 24 students, Reese says, and will probably include some students not employed in corrections but interested in entering that field.

The curriculum, developed by the Michigan Sheriffs’ Coordinating and Training Council, focuses on security, but also covers interpersonal communications, behavior issues, ethics, report writing and the culture of diversity, as well as specific duties, such as booking, intake and supervising day-to-day activities, Reese says.

Police academy students at Milwaukee Area Technical College. (Photo: Nick Ratas/MATC)

GRCC also has a police academy, with a curriculum drafted by the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards. Instructors for both academies are typically working or retired professionals. A former judge, for example, teaches legal issues.

Law enforcement education is more focused on cultural competency and interpersonal skills – including the de-escalation of conflict – than in the past, Reese says. As an example, a police officer needs be able to persuade an individual at a traffic stop to produce a driver’s license and registration “in a manner that is not confrontational.”

“We use a lot of scenario training,” he says. “It’s unfortunate that we live in a world where officers have to carry firearms to protect the public. Students need to learn that it’s a last resort.”

Intelligence gathering

Rowan College at Gloucester County in New Jersey has formed close ties with local law enforcement agencies. Last winter, the New Jersey State Police opened a branch of its Real Time Crime Center in Rowan’s Law and Justice Center.

The crime center serves as a high-tech intelligence hub to gather data, says Law and Justice Dean Fred Madden, a former acting superintendent of the state police department. In one example cited by Madden, the center could build a database on gangs to aid all law enforcement agencies in the region.

Each semester, two high-performing criminal justice students will be selected for a three-credit internship at the crime center. To qualify, students must be in their third year at Rowan, have at least a 3.0 GPA, pass a background check and have two letters of recommendation from instructors. The first interns will start in June.

Rowan offers a two-plus-one program in criminal justice. Starting next September, students who complete a two-year associate degree can spend a third year at the college, then transfer to Rowan University for a fourth year leading to a bachelor’s degree.

The FBI will have a presence at the Real Time Crime center next year, and Madden hopes to provide new internship opportunities at the federal level. He calls the center “a little gem that will offer students something they can’t get anywhere else.”

Rowan College also houses a police academy – with a new forensics lab – that educates recruits and provides in-service training that serves all police departments in southern New Jersey. Courses are taught by troopers, detectives, attorneys and other professionals.

Enrollment in criminal justice programs has been steady over the past few years, Madden reports. The police academy, however, is seeing a rise in enrollment, as agency hiring is up.

The academy currently has 58 students, compared to an average of 40 in recent years. About a third of the students are from the military. Their educational backgrounds range from a GED to graduate degrees.

Role-playing scenarios

Community-oriented policing is an emphasis at Edison State College in Ohio, along with behavior studies and the growing use of technology in law enforcement, says Tony Human, dean of professional and technical programs.

To prepare officers to respond appropriately in domestic and other social conflicts, students take part in role-playing exercises followed by a “hot wash,” where students and the instructor talk about what they did right and wrong, and what they could do better, Human says.

The curriculum, developed by the Ohio State Police Department, covers the use of body cameras, extendable batons and tasers, as well as firearms, Human says.

Edison State has a $60,000 simulator to test students’ ability to think on their feet when the adrenalin is flowing. “It’s like a big surround-sound movie screen with bad guys coming at you, and you have to shoot them with lasers,” says Human, a former police officer.

“Trainees have to determine whether someone is a bad guy or good guy. You have to think fast and make the right decisions,” he says. “That’s the most invaluable part of firearms training.”

Police recruits at Edison State Community College. (Photo: ESCC)

Graduates receive a police officer certificate and are also certified to use radar to catch speeders and to use an intoxilyzer to measure the amount of alcohol in person’s system. The certificate counts toward an associate degree in criminal justice. Advancing in a law enforcement career requires at least a two-year degree plus continuous professional development, Human says, although many agencies accept military service in lieu of a degree.

“Police work is not a calling answered for money or politics,” Human says. “If you want to do it, we offer to train you in the best and safest way.”

According to Human, most students in the program tend to be younger, although there are some in their 30s, and there are a couple of military veterans. The percentage of women hasn’t budged in the past few years; there are usually about two or three in a class of 15.

Strict standards

The 17-week, 720-hour police academy at Milwaukee Area Technical College has a curriculum developed by the Wisconsin Department of Justice. There are two academies a year, in the spring and fall, with up to 24 students in each one.

Those who complete the program earn a certificate that allows them to seek a job at any law enforcement agency in the state. Some of the students are already working in law enforcement and their employers pay for them to earn a certificate, says instructor Gino Reyes. Others hope to start a career in law enforcement and are paying out of pocket. Tuition is $5,000, and not eligible for financial aid.

In Wisconsin, applicants to a police academy need 60 college credits, must pass a criminal history and background check, have references from former employees, and pass a tough physical fitness test.

They also must go through an interview process, where they are asked such questions as “why do you want to be a police officer?” and “Would you be able to use deadly force to take a life?” and if that happens, “Would you be able to live with yourself?” Reyes says.

The standards have become so strict that law enforcement agencies are having trouble finding qualified candidates, Reyes says. “They don’t want to hire someone who is going to be a liability for them.”

Among the current class of 22 recruits, five are from the military and there are seven women, which Reyes says is more than usual. While there’s a huge need for diversity in law enforcement, Reyes finds it hard to find candidates from the populations served, noting there is just one African-American and two Hispanics.

He believes minorities are discouraged from law enforcement careers because of the “negative experiences they’ve had with the police,” and because they are pressed by family members to pick other professions.

About the Author

Ellie Ashford
is associate editor of Community College Daily.