Police Corps graduates its first class College tuition repaid in exchange for service

December 20, 1997|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Fifteen years after it was first envisioned, a unique program to encourage people with college degrees to join the ranks of law enforcement graduated its first class yesterday in a ceremony in Baltimore.

Touted as the future leaders of policing in America, 44 young men and women -- from 10 states, 28 colleges and universities and representing 18 disciplines -- swore an oath and were handed a gun and badge.

Twenty-eight will join the Baltimore force; 16 will become officers in Charleston, S.C. The two cities are the first in the nation to reimburse recent graduates for their college education in exchange for a four-year commitment to the cities as part of the Police Corps program.

"We are the product of an experiment," said class speaker Martin Bartness, addressing a packed auditorium at the Maritime Institute in Linthicum, where the recruits trained for 16 weeks.

In his short speech, Bartness, a Pittsburgh native who graduated from Creighton University in Nebraska and is a Baltimore police officer, addressed critics of the program, who have said that it encourages a class system among the rank and file. Of the 3,200 police officers in Baltimore, 491 have four-year college degrees.

"We are likely to encounter skepticism, and potentially we will even face resentment," Bartness said. "We will try extremely hard to act with humility and to tell other officers we are there for the same reason -- to improve the life of others."

The Police Corps -- often compared with the Peace Corps concept -- is the brainchild of Adam Walinsky, a New York lawyer who has tirelessly lobbied for the idea for 15 years and in 1994 persuaded Congress to provide $50 million to start the program.

Walinsky, a former speech-writer for Robert F. Kennedy, got Kennedy's daughter, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, on board to push the program in Maryland. He envisions a better-educated police force able to better deal with crime and citizens.

"You are coming from positions of education and prestige," Walinsky told the new officers, graduates of higher-education institutions including Northeastern University, Ohio State University to the Citadel. "You have done this out of as sense of obligation to your country and to others."

The new officers interviewed were ready to start their patrols, but the ones joining the Baltimore force will have to undergo another six weeks of training to learn specific laws and rules pertinent to the city.

The graduates come from diverse backgrounds. Melissa Hyatt's father, Sydney, retired as a major from the Baltimore force in 1995. She joined the Police Corps to follow in her father's footsteps.

Michael Jones, 24, a Morgan State University graduate, overcame the obstacles of an inner-city upbringing to make it. Some of his family members are in prison for drugs. His 18-year-old brother, Eric Julius Jones, was gunned down near his childhood home May 21; Jones met with a police recruiter on the day of the funeral.

Yesterday, he stood beside his beaming mother, Lula. "As a police officer, you learn to do your very best when things are at their worst," he said.

Then there was Cristin Treaster, who grew up in Ledyard, Conn., and came to Baltimore to be a doctor. She attended pre-med classes at the Johns Hopkins University, grew leery of the medical profession and decided to become an officer.

Yesterday, she graduated at the top her class, earning a 98.6 grade point average. She said she doesn't regret her decision one bit.

"I'm looking forward to hitting the streets," she said, between getting hugs from classmates congratulating her on the award and rushing to find her parents, who four years ago thought she was embarking on a career in medicine. "They support my choice," she said.

Attended by a variety of politicians and state officials, The 90-minute ceremony resembled a college graduation -- speakers pontificating on the graduates' future role, a U.S. Navy band thundering out the National Anthem and Maryland State Police Sgt. Sarah R. Mastronardi singing a rousing rendition of "Hero" by Mariah Carey.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier said he will rely on the officers to "solve problems, implement community policing and make positive changes in our neighborhoods." He said he looked forward to their starting work so they can "transfer from the academic to the practical."

Two of the original 46 corps members selected for the program dropped out.

Speakers acknowledged that whether the graduates' style of policing is different or better then that of officers who go through the department's traditional academy is still a question. But the former Police Corps director, George B. Brosan, set high standards, saying in August that if the program doesn't make a better officer, "we will be a failure."

But Townsend, in her keynote address, told the recruits that they and their education is vital to policing America.

"As Police Corps graduates, you bear a special role in the effort to break down the walls of misunderstanding between the police and some citizens," the lieutenant governor said. "Over time, the us vs. them mentality that infects police-citizen relationships will evaporate and, most importantly, our neighborhoods will be safer."

Pub Date: 12/20/97

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