Police training programs at community colleges are a vital cog in ensuring that local law enforcement agencies have a steady supply of recruits who have not only the weapons training, legal knowledge and other traditional skills but also professional skills like critical thinking, in an age when police behavior has come under focused public scrutiny.
“We’re doing a significant service to the community. Demand is high,” says Ronald Lowenberg, dean of the Criminal Justice Training Center at Golden West College in Huntington Beach, California.
But demands are high, too, thanks to issues like allegations of inappropriate use of force, or the challenges of dealing with the homeless population, he says.
“We as a training institution have to be nimble and flexible enough that as societal issues change, as the state legislature says, ‘We want you to have this kind of training,’ that we do that,” Lowenber says. “It’s easy for us to say, ‘We’re the experts in police training. Don’t tell us to do our job.’ That won’t get us anywhere.”
Challenges with recruiting
Like many community college programs, Hawkeye Community College in Waterloo, Iowa, notices that enrollment spikes in its undergraduate police science program and continuing education Iowa Law Enforcement Academy coursework when the economy is in a downturn, says Michael Leary, criminal justice and police science instructor.
“People tend to flock toward the public-sector jobs because they’re a little more secure,” he says. “We are constantly receiving information about openings in the market in our area. We’re constantly pushing people to apply, and many are getting hired.”
With the economy currently at full employment, however, police agencies in the three-county service area of St. Johns River State College (SJR State) in St. Augustine, Florida, are constantly struggling to keep up with demand, especially as the need for school resource officers continues to grow, says Jeffrey Lee, dean of criminal justice and public safety.
“They all talk about the challenge of recruiting and meeting an adequate number of officers,” he says. “Very rarely, at least with the larger agencies, do we hear they’re fully staffed. Smaller agencies are more able to maintain full staff, but it seems like they’re always hiring.”
Many recruits at Golden West’s Criminal Justice Training Center arrive already hired by law enforcement agencies, Lowenberg says. Those who sponsor themselves and/or with support of family, an increasing number of whom are military veterans, tend to be hired easily enough “unless they have a significant problem in their background,” he says. The regular course of study takes place over six months and 1,000 hours, he adds.
The state Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training mandates statewide standards for issues like basic training and in-service, as well as agency responsibilities when it comes to hiring police officers, which programs like Golden West follow, Lowenberg says. The state’s standards can get pretty specific; for example, the academy requires recruits to master an obstacle course that, among many other tests, involves dragging a commercially manufactured dummy a certain distance.
“It’s to replicate a situation like dragging a fallen partner out of a building,” he says. “For as long as I can remember, the dummy was required to be 168 pounds. We recently got a post saying it had to be 172 pounds because people’s weight is going up. No kidding.”
The center “stays in touch with the profession” through its executive advisory board comprising local police chiefs, to make sure training remains relevant to the day-to-day work of policing. Among the changes Lowenberg has noticed over the past decade or two that curricula have needed to address have been the rise in community policing techniques, knowledge of issues like mental health and crisis intervention, and active shooter incidents in schools and other locations.
“It was cops and robbers, and responding to services,” he says. “It’s just gotten increasingly more complicated.”
In addition to the basic course of study, Golden West starting this fall will be offering a specialized investigator’s program for limited duty peace officers, mostly at county and state agencies who have the power to investigate particular crimes. They will need only four months of instruction instead of six because they will not need training around duties like wielding a rifle or stopping a motorist.
“Their training is around criminal law, how do you investigate, case management and those kinds of things,” Lowenberg says.
Hawkeye offers its police science program to high school graduates and the regional police academy for those who have a two- or four-year police science or criminal justice degree and have been sponsored by their agency.
“That’s the continuing ed side of the business,” Leary says. “The police science program does lead into our academy, but that’s at the discretion of the hiring agency, where they actually send their candidate.”
Police science students learn operations, investigations, critical incident management, report writing and testifying, physical fitness conditions and safe, legal and defensive use of force. The graduate-level academy covers law courses, interview and interrogation, decision-making around the use of force, the statewide computerized accident reporting system, precision driving, and the use of handguns, shotguns and patrol rifles.
The police training programs don’t end up being all that expensive to maintain, Leary says.
“We’re under the umbrella of the School of Interprofessional Health and Safety Services, and we’re probably one of the cheapest of the programs to operate,” he says. “Other than firearms, and our shooting range and the crime lab, we don’t have a lot of other equipment that’s needed. Because so much of our (instruction) is more intellectual.”
The college has an advisory board comprised of a variety of criminal justice practitioners, including chiefs, officers and others who work in the court system, like probation officers, Leary says.
“It’s kind of a broad range of individuals who help direct where we’re headed, or at least are aware of hiring practices, current trends, and what they’re looking for in our product,” he says.