Colo. police academy graduates get workforce grants to replenish LE

Graduates spoke about their experience with the grant, which can be used to fund training that leads to an in-demand occupation

By Morgan McKenzie
Greeley Tribune, Colo.

WELD COUNTY, Colo. — A young Greeley girl found trust in law enforcement and, eventually, her calling in life after officers helped her home when she became lost on a cold, rainy afternoon during her walk from school.

As someone who lived in a poor neighborhood that didn't typically embrace law enforcement, the child's view of police was transformed.

She continued to interact with law enforcement while growing up. Her fascination even led to collecting baseball cards with the Greeley Police Department's officer rank and titles.

On Dec. 11, that child, Ashley Perez, was one of 18 students to graduate from the Aims Community College Peace Officer Academy.

Perez's journey into life as a police officer comes during a time when law enforcement needs her the most. The nation is facing a trend in officers leaving the job, as well as new recruits not wanting to join to begin with.

In Weld County, law enforcement officials have acknowledged the difficulties in filling these positions, which is why Perez and fellow graduates benefitted from workforce grants to help them strive through the academy and as they step into new law enforcement roles.

Through Perez's experiences with law enforcement as a child, she found officers that inspired her to pursue a career in the force. As a recent graduate from a police academy, she is excited to be a similar presence of trust for the community.

"I can be that inspiration for somebody someday, even through one small act of kindness," Perez said. "So that's what really drew me into law enforcement is being able to help my community, be that sense of trust for someone else."

The police academy is a 16-week academically and skills-intensive program, where students spend about 600 to 650 hours in a semester, according to academy director Jeff Smith. The program focuses on teaching students what law enforcement is going to be like for them.

Perez said her time at Aims was both rewarding and challenging. Aims staff taught her everything she needs to know for the next steps in her career, whether it was officer safety, forming community relationships or state statutes. Perez said she is thankful she chose Aims, especially because of the staff's assistance before, after and during the program.

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"They were all super supportive, and they wanted to make sure that each and every student got the help that they needed," Perez said. "They were willing to sit down and talk everything through with you. Even now, they're super supportive and helping you gain employment, helping you go through all of the steps that getting on with a police agency entails because there's a lot more than just submitting a resume and going through one interview."

Megan Moore, another recent graduate, had similar positive encounters with the staff at the academy, especially with Smith, who arrived halfway through the semester but continued to provide support for the students.

The long days and hard work were worth it for Moore, who said her time in the program was a wonderful experience that fully prepared her for the field.

"It was physically, emotionally and mentally draining, but it's a wonderful overall process," Moore said. "It definitely gets you ready and in the mindset to be a police officer, which I loved."

Moore feels police have an unfair reputation but she knew she wanted to be a police officer to make a difference in the community and be a part of the change.

"I wanted to be a police officer because I wanted to make a difference," Moore said. "Police officers have a bad reputation in the media. And unfortunately, it's far and few in between that are those bad cops, but those are the ones that are portrayed a lot more currently. So, I want to be someone to make a difference and to help families out."

Perez and Moore, along with a diverse group of students from across Weld and Larimer counties, graduated from the program this semester. As of right now, every person in the December graduating class has received one conditional job offer, Smith said.

The job offers the graduates are getting right out of graduation come with good pay. Smith indicated most agencies pay between $60,000 to $70,000 per year to start as an officer.

"Making $65,000 to $70,000 a year with full benefits and retirement — that's extremely affordable, especially in Weld County," Smith said.

Perez is in the process of joining the Mead Police Department, and Moore started with the Eaton Police Department on Dec. 20. Other graduates will be working at agencies all across the region in both Larimer and Weld counties, including Brush, Evans, Fort Collins, Fort Morgan, Loveland and Johnstown.

"I am looking forward to even starting off with a small department," Perez said. "I know, especially right now, with the media and that gap in law enforcement, I want to help bridge that kind of gap and hopefully, even just like through a small community, uplift law enforcement and the relationships that they have with the community."

RUN Grants

As the recent academy graduates quickly join the workforce, many can thank the Weld County Employment Services for financial assistance. In June, Gov. Jared Polis signed Colorado House Bill 21-1264, which took $75 million in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act.

The bill plans to financially support Coloradans in getting back to work through RUN grants, which invests in and stands for reskilling, upskilling and next-skilling, according to Karina Amaya-Ragland, Weld County Employment Services Workforce Director.

Those who have been economically impacted by COVID-19 can qualify for the funds. The grant goes toward providing short-term training, 12 consecutive months or less, to obtain an industry certificate or credential, or pursue training in a program that leads to an in-demand occupation.

Weld County is receiving $1.4 million, and the county's goal is to serve 340 people or more by Dec. 31 of 2024, Amaya-Ragland said. As an investment in the future of the Weld County workforce, the workforce center employment services are not waiting until 2024 to economically lend a hand.

"We don't want to wait until 2024," Amaya-Ragland said. "So we are spending as fast as we can and helping individuals in industries that are really struggling right now."

As the nation faces a deficit of police officers and a rise in law enforcement officials leaving the field, the grants and large graduating class come at a perfect time for northern Colorado.

In total, 86% of law enforcement departments reported a staffing shortage across the nation, according to a survey from last year by the National Police Foundation. Smith reported that northern Colorado agencies are a part of the shortfall.

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To ensure public safety with a police shortage in the region, Weld County Employment Services partnered with Aims Community College. The partnership financially helps nine police academy students with tuition assistance, transportation assistance, purchasing for training, entering the workforce and Colorado Peace Officer Standards & Training exam costs.

"It's a great collaboration between Aims and employment services, especially right now," Amaya-Ragland said. " The POST Academy is the first cohort that we've worked with, but we look forward to continuing to work with the POST Academy as well as several other industries that Aims certifies individuals in."

Overall, the funding given to Aims Police Academy graduates goes toward tuition and fees, including supportive services and costs of equipment like work boots, tennis shoes, belts, handcuffs and more. Transportation and gas money is even included in the grant funding, which is crucial to students who commute a few times a week to a training facility located in Denver.

Both Moore and Perez received assistance from Weld County. Employment services assisted Moore in paying for her classes and offered to help pay for the equipment needed for her new police job. Similar to Moore, Perez shared the services gave her gas vouchers, paid for her exam and assisted her with equipment purchases for her upcoming job.

"They've been very supportive and offering to help with anything that they could," Perez said.

Greg Cordova, Weld County Employment Services Youth Employment & Training Supervisor, said providing support to these students who are trying to make it through school, make an income and care for their families without going into debt is crucial.

"So the hope is through all these different ways of helping support the students, the students are in a better position," Cordova said. "They're going to get a job and they're going to be able to support their family, but on top of all of that, you know, increase our public safety and really contribute to making sure that our communities are a safe place to live."

Smith indicated he is very protective of his students, who are going into an unpopular field, a situation that can make any officer feel isolated. He said the grant allows upcoming officers to see that people care for them.

"I've been involved in law enforcement emergency management for 40 years," Smith said. "I have never before seen this many people wanting to leave law enforcement, and I've also never before seen something like this grant opportunity. It's very nice to see and to feel because it's a very, very thankless job."

Local police shortages

Across northern Colorado, more and more officers are leaving the force, according to Smith's connections at law enforcement agencies. Loveland, Greeley and even Windsor are down officers.

"We have more officers leaving the force now than we can get in and so any academy that graduates students is helping to fill that need," Smith said. "And that's why it works out good with the grant because they're certified in less than a year, they have a job in less than a year and it's a high paying job that then the county can prove back on ... that all the things are being met."

Since 2018, the Greeley Police Department has had 20 police officers leave the department, according to Interim Police Chief Adam Turk. He indicated the vast majority of departures were people leaving policing for other employment opportunities, and four were due to retirements.

As of right now, the Greeley Police Department is down one officer. Due to the police shortage, the department is working on replenishing its forces, along with other agencies across the nation.

"Any good leader, his goal is to leave the organization in better hands than how you found it," Turk said. "So it's incumbent upon the leadership and the training unit of the Greeley Police Department to set ourselves up for success down the road. We need to be innovative. We need to think outside the box."

One of the methods for replenishing the Greeley force, other than educating and encouraging people to continue applying, is bringing in new employees. In the past two weeks, the department has hired seven officers. Three of them are certified police officers from other agencies, another three are recent graduates from the Front Range Police Academy and four more are being sent to the Front Range academy.

"It's exciting because we need good people and we need to ensure the future of law enforcement because it's not going away," Turk said. "We want to recruit locally and hire people that are representatives of the community."

The trend of officers leaving the field has occurred for the last six months in Greeley and nationwide for even longer, Turk said. However, due to the attitudes toward policing, legislative changes and civil unrest, he does not see a stop to the trend anytime soon.

Along with the social unrest and the changes in policing creating a difficult environment for police, those who join the law enforcement field also have to deal with a toilsome schedule. Officers have to work weekends, nights and holidays due to the department being a 24 hours per day, 7 days per week operation.

Smith is impressed with his students for choosing to go into such a difficult job, especially with law enforcement facing such an immense backlash from some parts of society.

"These students know what they're going into," Smith said. "They're actually choosing to be part of the change and the new law enforcement that's going to come forward, and go into jobs that a lot of the cops themselves are wanting to get out of. So I'm blown away at what the students are wanting to go into."

Another impact on the police shortages is the competition between agencies in the state. Since there is a shortfall of people joining the force and a spike in officers hanging up their uniforms, Turk said northern Colorado departments are all competing for the same candidates.

Employment services impact

Weld County Employment Services has not only kept its focus on replenishing police forces, but the staff is working to help out any person affected by COVID-19 who is looking for training to reskill, upskill and next-skill in 12 months or less, according to Amaya-Ragland.

The funding is available to anyone who needs help getting back into the workforce across Colorado, she said, including at Larimer, Boulder and Denver county workforce centers.

The employment assistance process of going through eligibility requirements and the different steps it takes to financially help someone in the community can be tedious, Cordova explained. But case managers are given some freedom through the RUN grants to support people as they build a career, which has been satisfying to watch for Cordova.

"To be able to help a partner and help people that are in those educational institutions that are really striving to make their lives better for themselves and their families is really our main goal," Cordova said.

Along with police academy students, Smith said staff of employment services has also met in-person with Aims emergency services, paramedics and fire, which has been impressive for him to watch during a dearth of all first responders.

"It's great because all first responders are hurting right now," Smith said. "So that's even more telling about what's going on inside employment services right now."

Aims Community College has worked with employment services for years, but the team rarely gets recognition for the work done behind the scenes, according to Smith. Through his time working with the services, he said the staff has always bent over backward to help students, residents and workforce industries that are struggling.

"I would say there are so many industries that are struggling right now," Amaya-Ragland said. "When Gov. Polis signed this house bill, it gave us the opportunity to help so many more individuals to gain some type of credential that can help them upskill into a better-paying position and really get people back into the workforce since the pandemic.

"And it just really helps our economy start thriving again."

(c)2022 the Greeley Tribune (Greeley, Colo.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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