Wanted: Recruits for Police Corps

Academy: Lack of funds to publicize the program means it has millions of dollars to spend on training but a shortage of qualified applicants.

July 13, 1999|By DAIL WILLIS | DAIL WILLIS,SUN STAFF

Baltimore police officer Justin Reynolds rolls up to a blighted block in Pigtown on a sticky summer morning.

An agitated woman in a housedress talks to two officers in a patrol car idling by the curb. A man with arms folded stands a few feet away, flanked by two young boys with truculent expressions. As Reynolds steps out of his cruiser, the woman marches into her rowhouse and slams the door.

Here on Ramsay Street, everybody is angry.

"This isn't right," Reynolds says under his breath.

Reynolds, a 28-year-old former soldier, is one of the few city officers trained in Maryland's Police Corps Academy, which repays up to $30,000 in tuition for college graduates in exchange for four years on the force.

He will try to defuse a mini-war between the woman with two noisy dogs and nearly everyone else on Ramsay Street.

Pigtown is a good place to practice the skills emphasized in the academy. If Reynolds can calm everybody down today, maybe the dispute won't escalate into violence another day -- and he might even gain some trust essential to make the police partners, not adversaries, in crime-ridden neighborhoods.

The trouble is, there are not enough Justin Reynoldses.

He is one of only 54 graduates of the Police Corps working in Maryland, where recruits have lagged far behind the 360 expected in the academy's first three years. Nationally, there are even fewer graduates in the two dozen other states participating in the community-policing program conceived by a former speech-writer for Robert F. Kennedy.

So few have signed up for the Police Corps that $80 million in federal funds set aside for the program has not been spent.

"It's like panning for gold vs. hitting a big vein," says Michael S. Sarbanes, the director of Maryland's Office of Crime Control and Prevention, which oversees the Police Corps. "We're definitely getting gold out of it, but it's a lot of hard work."

Filling any police academy has always been difficult. Out of hundreds of applicants, only a handful pass background checks and physical requirements. In addition, the current robust economy has lured many potential recruits into safer, more lucrative jobs.

In Maryland, program advocates complain that a lack of funds for recruitment and advertising has stunted the program. But everyone agrees that the biggest challenge of all is changing the perception of police work.

"This is a revolutionary kind of program. It hasn't been done before," says Mike Dalich, acting director of the national Police Corps office in Washington, D.C. "Radical, visionary programs that require revolutionary change, they're tough."

The program marries a Peace Corps-like idealism with the grit and grind of police work. In Maryland, it's taught in 24 weeks at the residential academy housed in the Maritime Institute of Technology & Graduate Studies in Linthicum. Such idealism does not come cheaply. Dalich says it costs more than $100,000 to put a Justin Reynolds on the street. But he and other advocates say it's well worth it.

"I think it's critical to attract the best and the brightest to police work," says Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. "There's a whole group who might have joined the Peace Corps, VISTA [Volunteers in Service to America] -- but didn't think of the police. We want to recruit them."

Townsend's commitment to the Police Corps stretches back nearly two decades to 1982 when Adam Walinsky, a former speech-writer for her father, came up with the idea. Modeled on the Army Reserve Officers Training Corps, Walinsky envisioned a curriculum that would emphasize leadership, ethics, fitness and community policing.

The goal: to make the police a force for social change as well as traditional law enforcement.

"We've built a lot of housing for poor people -- with bars on the windows," Walinsky said. "All of the best cops know we cannot jail and arrest ourselves out of this dilemma."

Walinsky acknowledges that such sweeping change will take time, and says Maryland's original goal of attracting 120 Police Corps cadets a year might have been unrealistic.

"That was extremely ambitious," he said. "I don't know how long it's going to take them to get there."

The Police Corps program was created in the omnibus federal crime bill of 1994. Maryland received $6 million of the $10 million start-up money to create a Police Corps academy. Since then, the federal appropriation has grown to $30 million annually, but most of that has yet to be spent.

The program's most serious problem, Maryland officials say, is the lack of money for recruitment.

"The federal legislation did not provide money for recruitment, which was very short-sighted," Townsend said. "It's not rocket science. You have the money, you recruit."

Her sentiments are echoed by Police Corps officials in other states. "The program has no administrative funds," says Linda Atkin, the Police Corps coordinator in Oregon. "Going out and recruiting is very hard. That's the big one [difficulty] for everybody. I'm hearing the sad stories all over the place."

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