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Police criticism, legal marijuana hurt Idaho law enforcement training programs

Twin Falls Police Department Sgt. Brent Wright, left, watches cadet Andrew Woolsey, right, at a two-shot reload drill at the Twin Falls Police Department gun range on March 17.
Twin Falls Police Department Sgt. Brent Wright, left, watches cadet Andrew Woolsey, right, at a two-shot reload drill at the Twin Falls Police Department gun range on March 17. (Twin Falls) Times-News

Samantha White, now enrolled in the law enforcement program at the College of Southern Idaho, knew in the eighth grade that she wanted to be a police officer, but she’s one of a declining number of people in Idaho choosing such a career.

Anti-police sentiment and neighboring states’ legalized marijuana are contributing to a dramatic reduction in enrollment numbers in Idaho law enforcement programs. The decrease can leave departments scrambling to fill vacancies, especially in small communities that struggle to compete with larger cities’ wages. And manpower shortages keep police on the job more hours a day, increasing stress in an already stressful environment.

It’s a troubling trend.

CSI’s law enforcement enrollment numbers this spring are half of what they were two years ago, program director Don Hall said. “That trend is not just happening at this school, it is happening across the state,” he said.

Enrollment in Idaho State University’s program has continually dropped during the past five years. This spring was the first time in 18 years that there were no new students, said Cal Edwards, who oversees the program.

“You can go into food processing and make $30,000 a year. That’s an entry-level wage at many departments,” Hall said. “So why would you choose to go into a profession where you are constantly scrutinized and placed in a hostile environment?”

Hall and Edwards are revamping their programs to make them more appealing to candidates by shortening the 11-month patrol program to one semester, among other things.

What I’m really afraid of happening is the relaxing of standards because they have to have bodies on the streets.

Don Hall, law enforcement program director at College of Southern Idaho

If law enforcement trainers can’t turn around the enrollment trend, they fear Idaho won’t have enough officers on the beat.

“That’s a really scary thought,” Edwards said. “We are trying to do everything we can, including going to the schools and the military to recruit.”

Two other Idaho colleges teach law enforcement. The Treasure Valley’s College of Western Idaho, with a new program this year, is at capacity with 20 students. Northern Idaho College has about half of the number of students enrolled a year ago.

CWI’s new program in the Treasure Valley isn’t the full explanation for enrollment drops in Twin Falls and Pocatello, program leaders say.

Another option for law enforcement certification is the Idaho Peace Officers Standards and Training academy in Boise. POST drives the standards for all the law enforcement training programs in the state, and a 15-member council of Idaho police chiefs, sheriffs, prosecutors and other officials makes the rules and standards.

The number of students attending POST academies has also dwindled, said Victor McCraw, POST division administrator. Lower revenues and fewer students meant a shift in 2014 from four academies to just three a year.

The council made the decision after a sharp decline in 2010. Before then, average annual enrollment hovered around 200. It dipped to 144 in 2010 and was at 149 last year.

People choosing a career in law enforcement can attend one of the four college programs or pay to attend the POST academy. Or they can get hired by a law enforcement agency before being certified; they then have a year to get certified at POST, and the hiring agency usually picks up the tab.

REASONS FOR DECLINE

The Idaho economy, low pay, strict state standards and an anti-police culture all seem to play a role in the enrollment dip.

And few professions require the clean living, honesty and morality that law enforcement requires. Finding candidates that meet the standards is becoming tougher.

Hall said the increase in people experimenting with drugs has kept otherwise good candidates out of CSI’s program. Some nearby states have legalized marijuana — for recreational as well as medical use in Oregon, Colorado and Washington — but Idaho’s rules for admission include no use of marijuana in the past three years and no habitual use in the past five years.

Hall recently had a good candidate from Colorado who used marijuana 10 months ago — legally. He still would have to wait more than two years to be accepted into the Idaho program.

Police officers can drink alcohol and get into a wreck, and probably be punished with a few days off work, McCraw said, but if they smoke marijuana in their living room, they can lose their career.

19 Number of students in College of Southern Idaho program in spring 2014

9 Number of students at CSI this spring

Marijuana standards for police officers will definitely be a topic of discussion for the POST council in the next couple of years, McCraw said.

Age also can play a role in the enrollment decline. CSI law enforcement student Andrew Woolsey said he knew as a high school junior he wanted to be a cop. But Idaho standards dictate that a person has to be 21, which probably discourages a few high school graduates who want to start career training immediately.

Hall said the anti-police culture that seems so prevalent across the country in the wake of several police shootings likely also plays into the declining Idaho enrollment.

“I think most people have forgotten that police officers are human, that we still bleed,” White said.

Some citizens are not willing to extend the benefit of the doubt to officers, although the number of bad officers is actually low, McCraw said. “We’d like that number to be zero,” he said.

It seems like only the bad conduct of police officers is portrayed in the media, Woolsey said, and “that stops some people from wanting to become a police officer.”

WHAT IT TAKES TO WEAR THE BLUE

Law enforcement candidates are in short supply, but that doesn’t mean everyone is welcome. Even submitting the application to a training program can be daunting.

The process starts with extensive background checks into criminal history, including DUI and traffic offenses, drug use, fingerprinting and oral interviews. Candidates must be U.S. citizens. They must meet medical, hearing, physical fitness and mental health standards. Applicants are questioned extensively about whether they have ever participated in the sales or manufacturing of any drug, and whether they ever had sex with an underage person or viewed underage pornography.

“That is a real issue today,” Hall said.

Any felony conviction disqualifies them.

They also fill out questionnaires regarding behavior, including as juveniles. Juvenile criminal records will be unsealed, and all the applicant’s answers must be truthful from the start — those answers will be confirmed with a polygraph test.

“If you stole a piece of bubble gum when you were 7 years old, that’s not what we’re looking for,” Hall said.

14 Number of students in Idaho State program in spring 2014

0 Number of students at ISU this spring

But you must be honest about it. A police officer who lies isn’t tolerated.

“If you are caught lying under oath, you’ve ruined your career,” Hall said. “You cannot have a police officer’s integrity challenged.”

For many students the polygraph is the most daunting part of the process.

“It was absolutely terrifying to be hooked up to all those machines,” White said. “My hands were sweating and you can’t move.”

All law enforcement officers have to pass a certification test after training. Once hired by an agency, the officer will likely go through an ever tougher round of investigations that includes credit checks and people knocking on their neighbors’ doors to determine their moral character.

“Finding good applicants is really tough,” McGhee said. “Honesty is in short supply.”

SMALL COMMUNITIES

There is little doubt that smaller Idaho towns will feel the shortage of new officers the most. They cannot compete for the veteran officers who command higher wages in the state’s larger cities.

The city of Boise has the highest-paid police officers — and the most veteran officers, Hall said. The Boise Police Department’s starting wage is $49,816. In Twin Falls it is $38,922, and in Cassia County it is $31,200.

“Small agencies continually turn people over and over,” Edwards said.

McCraw said the biggest danger for agencies is several veteran police officers retiring at the same time, leaving the agency with multiple positions to fill — and a lot of rookies on the streets.

“You run into a real deficit in experience, that’s the real danger. You can’t replace experience. You need those experienced officers to train the newbies,” McCraw said.

This year, as two of the four college programs shift their patrol programs from three semesters to one, leaders will watch closely to see whether the condensed programs ultimately drive up the number of students choosing law enforcement.

For Woolsey, the choice was easy.

“I want to be one person’s hero,” he said.

Law Enforcement Enrollment

College of Southern Idaho

Spring 2014: 19

Spring 2015: 14

Spring 2016: 9

Idaho State University

Spring 2014: 14

Fall 2014: 8

Spring 2015: 14

Fall 2015: 7

Spring 2016: 0

North Idaho College

Spring 2014: 12

Fall 2014: 7

Spring 2015: 16

Fall 2015: 10

Spring 2016: 9

College of Western Idaho (new program)

Fall 2015: 20

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