More Try To Join Police

Recruits Who Graduate This Week Reflect Uncertain Economic Times

August 23, 2009|By Don Markus | Don Markus,don.markus@baltimoresun.com

In times of widespread economic strife and uncertainty, professions such as law enforcement are viewed as more stable and seem to attract larger numbers than in times of prosperity. This year's class of recruits to the Howard County Police Department is a prime example.

According to Lt. Bob Wagner, who has been commander of the department's education and training programs for the past 10 years, there were 1,800 applicants to this year's academy, a significant increase from the "400 to 500" applicants the county received two years ago when the economy was not in a recession.

Selectivity hasn't changed: Only 24 candidates were accepted to the class that graduates this week.

"Any time the economy goes down, our recruiting for public safety goes up," Wagner said one afternoon last week as a recruiting class of 19 men and four women counted down toward Tuesday's ceremony at Marriotts Ridge High School. They will have completed a rigorous 31-week program that began in January.

While many who were accepted to the academy were looking at it for reasons other than the stability of the profession, they were likely aware that state aid to police is being cut nationally and Maryland's local governments are facing a general $250 million trim from the current fiscal year's state budget.

The cuts in Howard County, which could affect law enforcement, are to be revealed at Wednesday's state Board of Public Works meeting. After holding steady the past two years - a total of $3.5 million annually in state aid to a total of $85 million budgeted for law enforcement - some cuts are possible.

"It didn't necessarily cross my mind," said Sharri Rohde, 25, a former basketball player and assistant women's basketball coach at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

"The only issue that I was worried about was getting into this current academy class, because I didn't know how few and far between the future classes would be."

For Rohde, a two-year captain for the Retrievers, it was more about professional satisfaction.

"I really wasn't happy with coaching, I felt like I could do more with my life," said Rohde, who grew up in Indianapolis.

Rohde said that going through the academy like being and athlete and coach in some ways, and different in others.

"The teamwork aspect is very similar; it's different in ways because it's life and death," she said. "It's not just winning and losing a game. We have become so close as a class that we are a family, and it's the closest family away from my own family I've had, including any sports team I've ever been on."

Nicholas Ventura, a 2000 graduate of Glenelg High School, simply wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father, Raymond, a former U.S. Secret Service agent. The younger Ventura quit his job in security at a Montgomery County insurance company because he realized that there would be even more competition for law enforcement positions if the economy failed to improve.

"I was going up against a lot of people for a spot in the academy, so I felt privileged to be selected once we got closer to the time the academy started," said Ventura, 27, one of six in this year's class who is going through the academy's program with Howard Community College to get an associate's degree.

Wagner said that the department has typically run two academies each year, in January and June, with a graduating class ranging between 24 and 30. Wagner said that plans are on hold for next year's class, pending the outcome of the budget cuts. "We could possibly have one in February, but again with the budget, that's a major factor," he said.

There hasn't been any talk of layoffs in the county's Police Department, Wagner said, adding that County Executive Ken Ulman and the County Council have been "very supportive" of those involved in public safety.

Ulman had made enlarging the police force a priority in his first two years, when he added 54 positions. Those now joining the force will be filling vacancies left by officers who have retired or resigned from their positions.

"In other states, they've talked about getting rid of recent graduates of the police academy; there's never any talk of that," Wagner said.

Ulman said in an interview last week that there are still plans for a class "next spring" and that his commitment to public safety remains strong.

"If you're going to fill vacancies, there's always going to be a need for a [new recruiting] class," Ulman said. "I think it's as stable a job as you're going to find in this economy."

Stability wasn't the only reason for Phillip Lilly's leaving one job in law enforcement for another. A correctional officer at Patuxent Institution in Jessup for the past 11 years, the Albemarle, N.C., native was motivated more by his professional and personal time clock. Lilly is 40, much older than the typical police academy graduate.

"I always thought at my age, the door was closing," said Lilly, who had applied twice to other police departments in Maryland, and been unsuccessful each time. "I wanted to keep myself physically fit and think of something that was more beneficial to me in the long run. You can grow a little more and get a little more respect in the field."

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