Police Corps recruits decline

Md. enrollment drop tied to low pay, poor federal management

`Rough road nationally'

June 30, 2000|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

An innovative program to encourage college students to become police officers in cities and towns across the nation is struggling to survive in Maryland, the state where it began three years ago.

Only 16 students are scheduled to take the oath and be handed guns and badges at today's Maryland Police Corps graduation, with four of the new officers headed to Baltimore, three to Hagerstown, seven to Howard County and two to Prince George's County.

The next class waiting to be trained has only 10 members, and the number destined for Baltimore - the state's largest police department - has dwindled to two. The class is so small that the Maryland program had to get permission from the Justice Department to proceed with less than the 15-student minimum.

The low number of officers going to Baltimore is particularly troubling for city and state officials because the program's original intent was to help areas where crime and social problems are most acute.

"Sure, we would like to see more officers in city neighborhoods," said Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who made the program a reality in Maryland and remains one of its strongest supporters.

But, she said, "the Police Corps isn't about boosting the numbers. It's about fundamentally changing the way police do their jobs so they can better prevent crime and build trust with the community."

When the program began in 1997, 44 students from two dozen universities graduated - 16 going to South Carolina and the remainder to Baltimore, which was eager to put better-educated officers on the streets.

The lieutenant governor and program officials noted that Baltimore has more police corps members than any other city in the country, 65. They said the recent decrease reflects low pay, a tight labor market and, as cited by congressional auditors, poor federal management of the program.

"It's been a rough road nationally for police recruiting," said J. Scott Whitney, a retired state police captain who runs the Maryland Police Corps, which has its academy at the Maritime Institute in Linthicum.

Low-paying police agencies struggle to compete with high-paying private companies for prospects who don't have college degrees. Those who are earning degrees are even harder to lure, despite the program's promise to pay up to $30,000 in college tuition.

An investigation by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, concluded that poor management also stifled the program.

As a result, only 430 of the 1,007 funded positions across the country had been filled for fiscal 1996 through 1998. More than $80 million in federal funds set aside for the program had gone unspent.

The Police Corps program has been moved from the COPS office - responsible for President Clinton's plan to put 100,000 new officers on the nation's streets - to the Justice Department's Office of Justice Programs.

Jeff Allison, director of the national Office of Police Corps, said the situation is improving slightly since the audit, released in February. He said 1,500 recruitment slots have been approved in 26 states and 152 police jurisdictions nationwide, and 700 are filled.

The next Maryland class has two officers going to the city, three to Howard County, four to Hagerstown and one to Prince George's County.

Allison, a former Maryland state trooper, said there's less interest in public service than before. Part of the reason, he said, is salary: Baltimore City police, who start at $28,404, are among the lowest paid in the state.

But the GAO reported other problems. In looking at the Police Corps programs in Maryland, Florida, Oregon and Texas, it found similar complaints: Local programs had to spend their own money to pay administrative costs and the understaffed COPS office was slow to offer help or support.

And in Maryland, which developed the prototype training academy, the contractor failed to produce an acceptable curriculum and created substantial training delays, GAO auditors said.

The problems prompted the Baltimore County Police Department to pull out of the Police Corps program in April, complaining that they had to retrain two graduates at a cost of $104,000.

But the biggest problem remains recruiting. Departments across the country are competing for fewer applicants, and Baltimore's regular academy, where college degrees are not required, can't fill three classes a year with 50 students each.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris said he likes the Police Corps program. "I would like to keep it," he said. "I would like to see it succeed."

Norris said he met some recent students and found them "well trained and squared away, the kind of candidates you would like to get for the Police Department."

The Police Corps program is modeled after the Peace Corps. Participants must sign up before they graduate from college. In return for a four-year commitment to being an officer, they receive up to $30,000 in tuition.

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