To boost ranks, bring back college assistance for cops

July 27, 2006|By KARL BICKEL

A growing problem for our nation's law enforcement community is the "cop crunch" that is leaving police departments across the country understaffed. The solution to this growing crisis is for Congress to reconstitute the Law Enforcement Education Program to attract qualified men and women to the field.

From coast to coast, it is estimated that 80 percent of the nation's 17,000 state and local law enforcement agencies have vacancies they cannot fill. The Los Angeles Police Department has more than 700 vacancies, and in March, New York City announced plans to hire 800 more officers.

Departments are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit qualified men and women to satisfy what has become a critical need. Competition among departments is growing fierce as they battle for recruits in a shrinking applicant pool. Smaller agencies have a difficult time retaining experienced officers, who are lured away by better pay and benefits offered by larger departments. There are simply not enough qualified men and women interested in a career in law enforcement to fill the need.

Some departments are considering relaxing requirements for college credits and modifying prohibitions on applicants with a history of arrest or drug use in an effort to expand the pool of potential hires. This is not the answer, but a mistake we have seen come back to haunt communities..

The solution is in a program that came out of the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, established by the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968. It is the Law Enforcement Education Program, or LEEP.

LEEP was among the biggest successes to come out of the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration. In the 1970s, it helped pay to educate more than 300,000 law enforcement officers who attended more than 1,000 colleges and universities nationwide.

The LEEP program provided loans to college students and active-duty police officers whose loans would be forgiven if they agreed to work in state and local law enforcement agencies. The program was an overwhelming success. It attracted college graduates to law enforcement and provided active-duty officers a way to obtain a college education.

The field has recognized the need for better-educated and better-trained police officers since the early part of the 20th century, but it was not until LEEP that genuine progress was made. LEEP changed policing forever by populating the field with better-educated officers, police managers and chiefs. Many of today's progressive leaders in law enforcement received their education, all or in part, as a result of LEEP.

The demise of LEEP did not come about because of poor results or poor management, but from a news report that focused on dentists who failed to repay their student loans, and the Carter administration's lack of interest in the program. While the Department of Education was establishing a goal of no more than a 20 percent default rate for student loans, to counter accusations of mismanagement in their loan program, the LEEP program's default rate was only 5 percent. The successful Department of Justice program was taken over by the new Department of Education when all college loan programs were consolidated within the one agency. LEEP was a low priority at the Department of Education, and it faded away.

In spite of LEEP's success, two-thirds of our nation's police officers do not possess college degrees. Only about 18 percent of the country's police departments require some form of higher education.

At a time when our communities are becoming more culturally diverse, there is a need for police departments to be able to draw from a well-educated applicant pool that better reflects those communities.

A 2005 study by the Police Executive Research Forum has shown that women, who represent only 14 percent of our nation's police officers, and minorities, have a greater representation in police agencies that require a college degree.

Effective community policing strategies and efforts to combat terrorism require better-educated law enforcement officers. A reconstituted LEEP program would attract college-educated men and women to the law enforcement field, a field in dire need of qualified applicants.

Karl Bickel is a former chief of law enforcement operations for the Frederick County Sheriff's Office and adjunct faculty member at Montgomery College in Rockville. His e-mail is kbickel@starpower.net.

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