Howard County Community College and the county Police Department have collaborated to create a program that allows police recruits to earn an associate's degree while training to become officers - loosening a strict requirement that allows the department to hire only those who have at least a two-year degree.
Rather than eliminate the degree requirement, the college has created a police science degree program. Recruits would earn 60 college credits during police training through weekend classes and additional classroom time.
Police Chief William J. McMahon said he is expecting the County Council to approve legislation changing the requirement by the middle of next month, and he hopes to start advertising the program for the July recruiting class.
"We're not lowering the bar at all. ... It's kind of rearranging how we're going to get there," McMahon said.
For 14 recruits, the program would cost the department $47,880, said Capt. Lee Lachman, commander of the department's Human Resources Bureau. For 20 recruits, the cost would be $68,400.
"Compared to the price for recruitment, that's a very reasonable number and dollar figure," Lachman said.
The college hired an independent contractor to assess the curriculum, he said. The amount of classroom time that recruits would spend in the academy would be extended from 29 to 30 weeks. More information will be added to some of the classes taught in the academy, and recruits would take 4 1/2 hours of coursework each Saturday for 23 weeks to fulfill the general-education requirements.
At the end of the 30 weeks of classroom time at the academy, those recruits without degrees would take an additional 3 1/2 weeks of general-education classes Monday through Friday.
Although most of the classes would be taught by police academy teachers, Howard Community College staff members would teach three of the courses - Law Enforcement in the Community, Introduction to Criminal Justice and Principles of Evidence and Procedure.
Howard and Montgomery are the only two counties in Maryland that require recruits to have an associate's degree. In 1999, the Howard County Council passed legislation requiring police recruits to have 60 college credits. The requirement is waived for those serving in the military and for cadets - department employees age 18 and older who wear uniforms and perform certain police duties, such as writing tickets and directing traffic.
McMahon said the new system would help the department battle one of its biggest challenges: recruitment.
"We were looking at ways to expedite our recruiting process and expedite ways to get quality people," McMahon said. "I'm very confident that part of [the problem] is we've artificially limited the number of people who can come here."
McMahon said staffing is one of the department's biggest internal concerns, and that 11 people are expected to retire in April.
"Our agency is replete with examples of people who came to us without college educations who have been valuable assets to the department," he said. "We want to give those people [without a degree] the opportunity."
McMahon said that for the most recent recruiting class - the third he has selected as chief - he received about 200 applications for 20 positions. He said that 20 years ago hundreds more people would have applied for the same number of jobs.
He said the department has tried other ways to recruit, including job fairs and a public service announcement advertising open positions in movie theaters. But he said competition for applicants with other area police departments and government agencies and the number of 21- to 25-year-olds serving in the military make the applicant pool slim.
The department has 402 sworn officers, said spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn. It received 32 new positions for fiscal 2008, 17 of which were filled by the current recruit class, which graduates Feb. 13. There will be 20 recruits in the July class, she said.
Llewellyn said that although the department is able to fill positions, it must prepare for retirements and resignations, requiring a "widening of the pool of people eligible to apply."
The community college has been eager to create a partnership with the Police Department and is excited about the new program, which is why it has taken just a year to get the curriculum nearly finalized, said Ronald X. Roberson, vice president of academic affairs.
He said that after reviewing the curriculum for a month, the school's curriculum instruction committee plans to approve the degree program at its meeting this month. It then would be submitted to the Maryland Higher Education Commission.
Each higher-education institution in the state has 90 days to make recommendations on the curriculum before the commission makes a decision whether to approve it.
"There's no chance this one's not going to get approved," Roberson said.
He added that making a financial profit from the program is not the school's concern, but rather to benefit the community.
"We're very excited from our standpoint," he said. "When we sat down, it wasn't a question of 'Will this work?' We knew it would work."
McMahon emphasized that the Police Department and college have worked closely for six to eight months to be sure the curriculum is challenging, and that the degree is not "watered-down."
He added: "It was very important to me that they have a degree that is credible."
McMahon said the "department has always valued education for all its employees."
"We think it's important in a community like this," he said. "People have some expectation that we're putting people in the community who are good communicators."