Officers armed with college degrees

Gore among speakers at graduation of Maryland Police Corps

February 13, 1999|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Graduates stood on an auditorium stage, representing 10 majors from 23 colleges, and pledged to put their education to use as police officers on Baltimore streets.

Part of an initiative to put better-educated protectors on city streets, the group yesterday became the second to graduate from the Maryland Police Corps, which pays recruits' college tuition in exchange for a four-year commitment to the police force.

"You are part of the next generation of American law enforcement," Vice President Al Gore told the graduates of the training center at the Maritime Institute in Linthicum.

Gore told the 27 new officers from 10 states that they will patrol Baltimore neighborhoods hard-hit by crime, "where the promise of the future seems as distant as the past. You are the stewards of American values. You must stand on the front lines as well as the front porches."

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

Baltimore and Charleston, S.C., were the first to try it in 1997. Now, 1,000 officers have gone through the program in 23 states. Proponents hope to make its grueling training a standard for police departments throughout the nation.

But it has its critics.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police has targeted Police Corps for creating an elite group of educated officers who are supposed to be better-trained and more community-oriented than recruits in the department's in-house training classes.

Another fear is that corps officers will stay only for their four-year commitment, creating constant attrition that will threaten the availability of future top-level commanders.

But many recruits interviewed yesterday said they planned to make law enforcement their career. Officer Steven P. Olson, a graduate of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, reminded the audience that his class of 27 had been pruned from 1,200 applicants.

The Jessup native, Howard High School graduate and former Marine said he joined after reading an advertisement that asked for applicants who were "book-smart and also street-wise."

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend recalled her uncle, John F. Kennedy, who as president founded the Peace Corps during a time of strife abroad. "Today, the greatest danger is fear and crime at home."

Townsend, who has made law enforcement a signature of her tenure, said she recently walked through Baltimore's Penn North community, "hit hard by crime and drugs, where the relationship between citizens and police is tense."

She was with Officer Eric Triana, who graduated from the Police Corps' first class in December 1997. "Officer Triana introduced me to the residents of Penn North by their first names," she said.

That is the kind of policing the recruits trained for. Not only do they study law, firearms and self-defense, they also spend hours in city neighborhoods and talk to residents, authors and scholars.

"We are trying to create a socially conscious, civically literate, community-oriented police officer," said John S. Martello, executive director of the Shriver Center at UMBC, a co-sponsor of the program.

Pub Date: 2/13/99

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