The Baltimore Police Department is ending a tuition reimbursement program that helped hundreds of officers earn college degrees, a move officials say is a casualty of budget cuts.
The program, a recruiting tool that many now in police leadership positions in Baltimore and elsewhere used to earn their degrees in criminal justice, will not be funded beyond the spring 2009 semester.
Officials are exploring alternative ways to help officers with financial aid but acknowledge many will likely be forced to drop out.
In a letter to officers, Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, who has pushed for training and education during his time as commissioner, wrote that he asked his leadership team to review the budget to contain costs "without hampering our primary objective of keeping the citizens of Baltimore City and our members safe."
Deputy Commissioner Deborah Owens said police leaders hope the cut is a temporary one. Without slashing the program, which is budgeted at $400,000 but regularly pays out $800,000 to $1 million, Owens said, the department was facing the possibility of layoffs.
"This is just for the 2010 budget," Owens said. "This entire department is committed to furthering education."
Police union President Robert Cherry is speaking out against the cut, saying the department needs to maintain its commitment to those officers already enrolled and that the program's recruitment advantages "supersede the financial necessity to make these cuts."
He said he is receiving phone calls and e-mails from officers concerned that the cut represents a broader disinvestment in the rank and file.
"This is just foreshadowing of things to come," Cherry said, noting changes to retirement payouts. "We're starting to rethink: Is this administration as committed to the rank and file as they pretend as they are?"
Doug Ward, director of the Johns Hopkins University's public safety leadership division, estimated that about one-third of his students in police-related studies are Baltimore police officers. He said many of them are panicking.
He said the cut was not necessarily a surprise - Baltimore was one of the last area police agencies to provide tuition reimbursement, and the economy is forcing tough decisions across the country. But he said he was disappointed.
"In today's world, [higher education] is becoming almost a standard," Ward said. "It's a shame to see anything that inhibits that, but we also realize there are fiscal realities."
The program not only helped officers attend school but also held them accountable for their performance, with the amount of reimbursement tied to performance. Members who attained a "B" or better received full reimbursement. Those who received a "C" received 75 percent, and lesser grades were not reimbursed.
Officers were also required to sign a form agreeing to remain with the Police Department for at least one year after completing a degree. The general order spelling out the rules, however, repeatedly notes that the perks are contingent on the city budget.
Cherry said he and other union officials are taking up Bealefeld's offer to sit on a committee charged with finding alternative private funding to maintain the program.
"I think the funding is there - it's a matter of prioritizing in the budget," Cherry said. "They're telling me the budget is down to the marrow of the bone. I don't think it is yet."