Police want recruits with college credit

Council to vote on stricter minimum for new officers

Applicant pool shrinking

Limit may have effect on attempts to hire more minorities

February 07, 2000|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,SUN STAFF

Jessica Hummel and Mark Dietz are the crime fighters of the future.

Articulate, polished college graduates, Hummel, 23, and Dietz, 22, symbolize the type of young officers sought by Howard County police -- a department led by a chief who wants to raise minimum officer requirements to include 60 hours of college credit.

If Chief Wayne Livesay's proposal is approved by the County Council, whose vote is scheduled tonight, Howard police will be the second department in the state to require a college background for new officers. Nationally, a push is under way among police departments to sharpen their image and professionalize their work.

"Departments want to hire officers that will not embarrass them or get into trouble," said Tony Narr, director of management education at the Police Executive Research Forum. "Historically, it has been thought that those with a college degree have a wider range of skills to solve problems."

Livesay seems to agree with that logic, telling County Council members at a hearing last week that police officers are "marriage counselors, lawyers, social workers and experts on children."

"Policing is not what it was 15 years ago," he said. "Having some college will better prepare officers."

While the department has hired officers such as Hummel and Dietz, who will begin patrolling Howard streets in July, finding officer candidates with college credit sounds good in theory but is a struggle in practice.

Recruiters say that in years past, police work has been a good-paying job for those with only a high school diploma. But a booming economy has departments across the country competing against the private sector, which can offer college graduates or those with a two-year degree more money and benefits.

Dietz and Hummel are student officers in a relatively new federally funded program called Maryland Police Training Corps in Linthicum. The pair and their 17 classmates have agreed to spend at least four years as police officers in exchange for up to $30,000 for their college bills.

Even with those incentives, the corps has struggled to find candidates, graduating a fraction of the hundreds it expected. Capt. Scott Whitney, who runs the program, said it is hard to get college graduates to work for about $30,000 a year, which is barely enough to afford housing in the jurisdictions they will be patrolling.

"These kids are great," he said. "But the economy has made it difficult to get them here."

Dietz and Hummel gave the corps glowing reviews. Both said they had been attracted to a law enforcement career for reasons other than money.

"This is a way to get personal satisfaction and rewards," said Dietz, who has a history and philosophy degree from Catholic University. "And many of my role models growing up were police or military."

Finding recruits such as Dietz and Hummel is complicated further by the drive many departments have to hire minorities. The college requirement shrinks the pool of applicants.

"It does create challenges for any department that has good minority representation," said Bob Stewart, director of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Executives, a nonprofit group that studies training and other law enforcement topics.

But it can be done.

Since the late 1970s, Montgomery County police have required all new hires to have at least 60 college credits. To be promoted past the rank of sergeant, an officer must have a four-year degree, said Capt. Donald Mates, who heads the department's personnel section.

Mates said that because the department has had the college requirement for so long, he is unsure how much it has affected recruitment -- minority or otherwise. Because candidates must be at least 21 years old, it is likely they have some college background, he said.

Higher education for police officers has been discussed for years, he said, but "how does it play off of life experience?" Many good officers are not college graduates, he said.

Mates and others agree that recruitment hinges on a good pay and benefits package. The starting salary in Montgomery is $32,047 -- one of the highest in the area. Howard is close behind at $30,156.

Attracting minorities also means recruiters should work harder to search for candidates at traditionally black colleges, as well as make their department the most attractive to work for in the area, experts say.

"If you are looking toward raising the education level of your department, you have to have some inducements to get higher education," Stewart said. "Your long-term officers also have to be included in the educational mix. There has to be incentives for everyone."

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