Pa. police academy: Cadets have more options as department offers pour in
Departments often call Penn Highlands Police Academy, asking if any soon-to-be graduates are ready for jobs and offering pay incentives
By Dave Sutor
JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — A notice from the North Las Vegas Police Department advertising a hiring bonus up to $40,000 for new officers is tacked to the Penn Highlands Police Academy’s bulletin board.
Below it, there is a message from the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police offering to bring its own recruitment and civil service testing teams to the academy at Pennsylvania Highlands Community College in Richland Township.
New job advertisements frequently arrive with starting pay in the range between $50,000 and $100,000. Departments call to ask if any soon-to-be graduates are ready for jobs.
And, of course, chiefs within the academy’s coverage area of Cambria, Somerset, Bedford and Blair counties often visit, hoping to convince cadets to pursue law enforcement careers close to home.
That proactive nationwide recruitment is much different than the process Dennis Miller, the academy’s director, went through early in his three- decade law enforcement career.
He remembers testing with more than a hundred other candidates, all hoping to land one of the handful of available openings for beginning pay that was, in his words, “not that great.”
“The whole field has completely changed,” Miller said.
Departments, both large and small, are trying to adapt to that transforming world of law enforcement in order to provide necessary protection to their communities.
For example, the Johnstown Police Department is budgeted for 41 total officers this year, according to information provided by the city. But the department currently has only 31 active-duty officers, with another expected to leave by the end of the month. Even with four scheduled to join the force throughout November and December, the department will still be understaffed.
Somerset Borough police Chief Randy Cox said his force should have around 20 officers.
In the past, there would occasionally be one or two openings at a time, a situation he described as “completely manageable.” But Somerset is five officers short right now.
“It’s close to being critical for us,” Cox said, “so what we’ve been attempting to do is visit and contact local academies in order to try to recruit officers for our vacancies.”
All five of those vacant positions are uniformed patrol, meaning that administration officers and detectives must fill in, resulting in less time for them to do their regular duties.
Cox called it “a vicious circle.”
“The No. 1 problem it creates is that when you’re missing that many officers, we’re depending that much more on the officers that we do have,” Cox said. “Officers are working a lot of overtime, which means it’s costing us more money to operate the department. And probably even more importantly than that, officers tend to experience some level of burnout because they’re working more than they normally or historically would be.”
‘Going to be a battle’Local and national factors are affecting the ability to recruit and retain police officers.
State Sen. Pat Stefano, a Republican whose 32nd District includes Somerset County, pointed to a general workforce shortage in a region where far fewer people live now than in the past.
“It’s the same as we have for police, as it is for fire, as it is for EMS, as it is for nursing, as it is for teachers, and I could go on and on and on,” Stefano said. “We have a declining population, and we still need more people to work. It’s going to be a battle.”
Stefano said elected officials need to be “making sure we have strong enough economic development in communities to stabilize the tax base, so the tax base is strong enough to support a police force at the level to be able to attract them.”
From a more national perspective, Miller said, “There’s social chaos. It’s a tough job. ... It’s the disrespect for law enforcement.”
Issues created by racial tension have also been prominent in recent years.
One of the most well-known examples occurred in 2020. Peaceful demonstrations and violent riots occurred across the country after a white Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by kneeling on his neck for several minutes while being recorded on video.
At that time, calls to defund police departments intensified in some regions of the country.
“No. 1, although we don’t experience it that much here, I think the climate that has been created nationally is having an impact on people’s decisions to even want to go into law enforcement,” Cox said. “What they see happening nationally may not be happening in their backyard, but I think it still has an effect on, ‘Is this really the career I want to choose?’ ”
Michael Wilson, a current Penn Highlands Police Academy cadet, hopes to change that narrative, at least for his 5-year-old child.
“My son, he is biracial, and he kept asking me why cops don’t like brown people, and it really kind of got to me,” Wilson said. “The way I wanted him to view police is the reason why I made up my mind this is where I was going.”
Pennsylvania State Police Communications Office Director Lt. Adam Reed said efforts must be made to “dispel a lot of the stereotypes and misinformation that’s out there.”
“A lot of that is incumbent on us to build that trust back within the communities,” Reed said. “That trust is built back through the positive work that our troopers do on a daily basis, the positive things that we do to help the community in times of need. Also, it’s important that we take steps to be transparent in what we do. We have done things like form a new office called the Office of Community Engagement.”
In Cox’s opinion, there is also a “generational” element in which some younger people in the job market are “looking for opportunities to exist immediately that sometimes don’t exist until they’ve established some sort of tenure.”
Shannon Ehrhardt, captain of this year’s Penn Highlands cadet class, is an example, though, of somebody who has wanted to enter law enforcement for years.
“Ever since I was really little, I always really had a passion for law enforcement,” Ehrhardt said. “I never really pursued it until just recently. I kind of asked myself what I wanted to do the rest of my life, and I really like helping people and just being part of the community.”
Penn Highlands Police Academy offers an 11-month, part-time course in which cadets attend class four nights per week, along with 12 weekends of firearm training.
“The purpose for the part-time academy is we often get cadets from all walks of life that are seeking to change their careers, or they’ve always wanted to become a police officer, and for whatever reason they delayed that,” Miller said, “and now they have a mortgage payment, a house payment, a family, and this is a way for them to become a police officer without putting their life on hold for six months to attend a full-time academy.”
“It really does fill a niche in the community in training people that are unable to attend a full-time academy.”
Attending the class costs $6,500.
There are ways to offset the expense. Police departments can sponsor a cadet by paying the tuition while making a conditional job offer. Upon the cadet graduating and joining the force, the municipality can then request a 75% reimbursement from the state.
“It’s a very unique way for municipalities to solve their recruitment needs,” Miller said.
Penn Highlands’ Municipal Police Officers’ Education and Training Commission (MPOETC)-approved academy graduated its first class last year. Ten of the 11 cadets secured jobs before even finishing the course, according to Miller. Seven of the 10 were sponsored by a local municipal police department.
Also, in October, the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency announced a grant program in which “eligible law enforcement agencies that do not cover the costs of Act 120 (a mandatory training program for municipal police officers in Pennsylvania) can request up to $7,000 per new officer to support costs associated with the training, or, if they currently hire officers who are already Act 120-trained or the agency already covers training costs, apply for up to $5,000 per new officer to support stipends, signing bonuses, or marketing efforts,” according to a press release.
Gov. Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, described the $14 million program by saying that “creating safe communities starts with ensuring our local police departments are well-staffed, well-funded, well-trained and well-equipped.”
The goal is to get approximately 2,000 more full-time officers in the commonwealth.
Shapiro also recently announced the elimination of the college credit requirement for residents who want to join the state police. Applicants previously needed at least 60 credits, per a rule that had been around since the 1990s.
The impact has been immediate.
PSP received 1,374 applications during a previous six-month hiring cycle earlier this year, according to Reed. In comparison, there were more than 1,500 applicants in just the two months after the college requirement was removed on Aug. 28.
“We’re happy to see the jump,” Reed said. “We’re welcoming of individuals with college experience and no college experience who are possibly going to provide us with some really good work experience and career experience that they may be bringing to the table for us.”
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