Police academies still thriving despite recession

By Joel Currier
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

ST. LOUIS — Chuck DeProw had job offers from the Police Department and the U.S. Steel plant in Granite City.

He chose the higher-paying factory job because he needed the money.

That was 20 years ago, but when the steel plant laid him off last December, DeProw decided it wasn't too late to pursue his dream of becoming a police officer.

"If I had known then what I know now, I would have gone the other way," said DeProw, of Brighton, Ill. "When I got laid off, it was like, this is my opportunity."

At 45, DeProw was the oldest in a class that graduated Oct. 22 from the Eastern Missouri Police Academy in St. Charles County.

He is not alone in turning toward the traditionally stable career of police work in tough economic times. But as cities grapple with tight budgets, demand has slowed - sometimes dramatically - leaving some police academy graduates without jobs.

Though the economy is showing signs of rebounding, unemployment in St. Louis topped 10 percent in September. So the job outlook for those eligible to become police officers may be just as tough as in other industries, said Anne Winkler, professor of economics and public policy at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

"You're going to have a lot of people competing for a limited number of spots," Winkler said.

Last year, Missouri licensed 1,355 academy graduates to become police officers, a 46 percent increase from 2004. Through last week, the state already has issued 1,311 licenses this year.

Three police academies in the St. Louis area are reporting sharp increases in unsponsored applicants - those starting classes without the guarantee of a job after graduation.

In Illinois, the recession has hurt police academies. Because police departments there generally hire recruits before enrolling them at academies, many classes are running less than half-full because cash-strapped cities can't afford to hire new officers.

"The enrollment is down significantly across the state," said Van Muschler, director of the Southwestern Illinois Police Academy in Belleville. "Until the economy turns around, you probably won't see an increase in hiring or in police academy enrollments."

In 2006, Illinois certified 1,660 people to work as police officers. Through October of this year, just 477 police academy graduates have been certified.

Mark Wilkans, acting executive director of the Illinois Police Chiefs Association, said most towns are not increasing the size of their departments unless it's absolutely necessary.

"They're trying to hang on to whatever they have and cutting everywhere else to avoid layoffs," Wilkans said.

Patrick Judge, executive director of the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training, said the number of police jobs available varies by state, partially depending on how hard the recession has hit. He believes the number of people seeking jobs in law enforcement and enrolling in training has remained about the same nationally.

Directors at the three St. Louis area academies that accept self-sponsored students say the uncertain economy could help explain the increase in applicants this year.

"Our enrollment is absolutely going through the ceiling," said Ron Neubauer, director of the Eastern Missouri academy in St. Charles County, where the flood of applicants has forced the academy to double class sizes this year.

Already at least 85 people have applied for testing to qualify for the academy's first class of next year, Neubauer said.

"We expect 2010 to be sort of a banner year for us," he said.

In the city, the St. Louis Police Academy has received about an average number of applicants this year despite suspending classes until last week. It only holds classes when it can hire officers. Its first class of the year began Oct. 26, after the department received an $8.67 million federal stimulus grant to hire 50 new officers.

Lt. Kevin Lawson, director of the St. Louis County Police Academy, said typical classes there have an even balance of sponsored and unsponsored trainees. But that has changed: 24 of 26 people in a class that began in mid-October are "open enrollment" students who started without sponsorships and job offers.

Arnold police Capt. Diane Scanga said instructors at the Jefferson College Law Enforcement Academy in Hillsboro are seeing an older crop of students, many from the private sector or the military.

"We're seeing a more second-career kind of person rather than the young person who's ready to save the world," Scanga said.

Ronald Burgess Jr., 36, of House Springs, qualified for federal stimulus money toward his tuition at Jefferson College after losing his assembly line job at the Chrysler plant in Fenton. Being laid off, he said, may have been a blessing after all.

"Being 36 years old and going back to school is scary, to say the least," Burgess said. "Law enforcement is something I've always wanted to do."

Jason Jamison, 31, a former Marine from south St. Louis County, is hoping police jobs are somewhat insulated from the economy as he awaits callbacks about job interviews from several departments. Jamison, who was laid off earlier this year from a marketing job, graduated a little more than a week ago from the academy in St. Charles County.

"It would have been great to have graduated in a uniform, but I'm confident there's a job out there for me," Jamison said.

DeProw, the ex-steelworker from Brighton, wants to move to Cape Girardeau, Mo., where he is interviewing to be a patrolman. He hopes his criminal justice degree and volunteer experience with a police department will make him a top candidate.

"I just can't wait to do my job," he said.

Copyright 2009 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Inc.

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