Six months of pre-dawn push-ups, evening lectures and 16-hour days came to an end Friday for seven new Howard County police officers, who became the department's first graduates of a federally funded program designed to encourage college students to become police officers.
The officers are among 16 graduates of the fourth class of the Police Corps program in Maryland. They received their badges and guns at graduation ceremonies yesterday and will spend five weeks in the county's police academy before going into the field.
Although the Police Corps was designed to encourage college graduates to become police officers in cities, nearly half of the class chose Howard - drawn to the county by higher pay, its suburban environment and its reputation for good law enforcement. The starting salary for an officer in Howard County is $33,500, compared with $28,404 in Baltimore City.
"I'm not big on cities to begin with," said Jason DiCerbo, 23, one of the new Howard officers.
Modeled after the Peace Corps, Police Corps will reimburse program graduates up to $30,000 in college tuition costs in exchange for a four-year commitment to law enforcement. Recruits receive a small stipend and room and board while they are in the Police Corps academy.
Howard County - like most jurisdictions - has trouble finding enough qualified police officers, and the Police Corps helps fill the need, said the department's recruiter, Pfc. Eric Brown. "Police Corps falls right in line with having a better-educated officer," he said.
Although Baltimore County pulled out of the Police Corps program, expressing dissatisfaction with the quality of training, Howard police officials say the Police Corps curriculum fits well with the county's emphasis on community-oriented policing.
"They get a lot of training and real-life experience," said Lt. Keith Lessner, a Howard police officer and Police Corps instructor.
There are financial benefits for the county as well. Howard saves more than $16,000 per officer in training costs and receives $40,000 for each of its Police Corps graduates. Beginning in January, the program also will cover the cost of polygraph and background checks for applicants.
Although the program has existed for four years, the new Howard officers said they hadn't heard of the Police Corps until a few days before they showed up at the corps' academy in Linthicum.
The officers, mostly criminal justice majors in college, said they learned of the program when they applied for positions at the Howard County Police Department. Although Howard was hiring officers, it was not holding its own police academy at the time and referred the recruits to the Police Corps.
In some ways, the officers said, the corps' residential training program was more than they bargained for.
"You get so tired and stressed out," said Joseph Gummo, 24, another of the new Howard officers. Even though Gummo hated the rigors of training, he said he was always ready to compete.
"I'm very competitive," said Gummo, who hopes to become part of Howard's SWAT or police dog units. "Whenever we have to compete, I'm ready to do it, no matter how much sleep we've had."
This may be what earned Gummo the Superior Fitness Award, which was presented to him during graduation exercises.
Many of the Howard officers said they would have preferred a more typical academy experience of eight-hour days and free weekends, but DiCerbo said he would "leave everything exactly the way it was. ... It's made me a better person."
DiCerbo said he has noticed changes in himself since the training, including a more positive and disciplined attitude. But the most noticeable change was physical: "I'm in the best shape of my life," he said.
While changes are being made in the Police Corps curriculum, J. Scott Whitney, a retired state police captain who runs the academy, said it is important to retain the residential component.
The days are long, he said, but officers learn more than they would in a day-only program. Besides learning law enforcement procedures, the students visited the Gettysburg battlefield as part of their studies in leadership, and toured the Holocaust Museum in Washington to better understand racism.
"The extra learning is more important in some ways than the classroom time," Lessner said.