BURLEY • Samantha White was in preschool making snowmen out of marshmallows when her little sister, who had cerebral palsy, started choking on one of the gooey treats.
A boy in the class piped up and said he hoped she’d die.
“I stood up and I knew that I wanted to protect her,” said White, now enrolled in the law enforcement program at the College of Southern Idaho.
White knew in the eighth grade that she wanted to be a cop, but she’s one of a declining number of people in Idaho choosing a career in law enforcement.
Anti-police sentiment and neighboring states’ legalized marijuana are contributing to a dramatic reduction in enrollment numbers in Idaho law enforcement programs. The decrease in new officers can leave departments scrambling to fill vacancies, especially in small communities that struggle to compete with larger cities’ wages. And manpower shortages keep cops 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.”
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.
When the economy is good, he said, fewer people seek training of any kind — and fewer people become officers.
“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. Hall hopes that is enough to fill the empty chairs and supply the demand from Idaho agencies struggling to hire entry-level officers.
“What I’m really afraid of happening is the relaxing of standards because they have to have bodies on the streets,” Hall said.
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. 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, correction and other law enforcement 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 students in 2010. Before that year, average annual enrollment hovered around 200. In 2010 it dipped to 144. In 2015, 149 patrol students attended POST.
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.
College courses used to enjoy a benefit over the POST academy: The college students get to go home every night. That’s attractive to single parents and others who couldn’t afford to be away from home for 10 weeks to attend the academy.
But to attract more students, in fall 2015 the council opened the POST campus too, McCraw said. That allows those living close to the academy to make the drive every day. The change also eliminated some dorm and meal costs for the program, an important factor because POST has seen a dip in revenue from fines and tickets.
Reasons for the Enrollment Decline
The Idaho economy, low pay, strict state standards, age and anti-cop culture all seem to play a role in the enrollment dip across the state.
The intense scrutiny officers are always under, starting with the day they apply to a program, also deters a few candidates.
Few professions require the clean living, honesty and morality that law enforcement requires, and finding candidates that meet the strict 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 into a law enforcement program 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. Though marijuana use is legal where the candidate lived at the time, he now has 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 without putting anyone else in danger they can lose their career.
Marijuana standards for police officers will definitely be a topic of discussion for the POST council in the next couple of years, McCraw said.
Many people don’t appear interested in a long-term career anymore, said Larry McGhee, a law enforcement instructor at CSI.
McCraw agreed: “Today young people will have multiple jobs, and they don’t want to go to work at one place and stay there.”
Age also plays a role.
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.
McCraw said many agencies will hire a candidate slightly younger than 21; the agency then has a year to get the person certified and for the age requirement to be met.
Hall said the anti-cop culture that seems so prevalent across the country likely also plays into the declining Idaho enrollment.
Two years ago Ferguson, Mo., a St. Louis suburb, became known for racial upheaval after a police officer shot an unarmed black man. The incident set off a national debate that put police conduct and racial profiling under scrutiny and increased violence toward police. During the first three months of 2016, the number of police officers killed in shootings more than doubled from last year, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.
“I think most people have forgotten that police officers are human, that we still bleed,” White said.
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.”
It seems like only the bad conduct of police officers is portrayed in the media, Woolsey said. “That stops some people from wanting to become a police officer.”
Today there are higher standards for selection than ever before and stricter accountability, Hall said. He tells his students they will always be scrutinized through the use of body and dash cameras and on cellphone videos taken from the corner.
National news media, Edwards said, have “really hammered police lately.” And that affects the morale of both students and the officers on the streets.
“I tell them it is part of the culture today and in the end it will prove out how appropriate and professional we are,” Hall said.
All the scrutiny gets the cadets ready for what lies in wait on the job.
“I try to be fairly blunt, but you can scare them away,” Hall said. “It’s an honorable profession. I don’t sugarcoat it, but I try not to make it doomsday either.”
It is also a fun profession, Hall said. When he has students out on the gun range learning to shoot under blue skies when their peers are stuck in offices, he makes sure they note it.
But police officers also see, up close, mankind being its worst to other human beings.
For some students it means finding out the career is not for them, and that’s good to learn before they are on the streets, Hall said.
During every POST academy, McCraw asks the cadets how many lost family and friends when they announced they wanted to be a cop. Every time, he said, hands go up.
“It’s not cool with your friends if you want to be a police officer, especially if you’re shot at and cussed at on the news,” McCraw said. “We always have five or six that say they are not welcome at the Thanksgiving table anymore. That’s huge.”
It’s the honor of the job, he said, that draws them in.
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, past drug use, fingerprinting and oral interviews. Candidates must be at least 21 and 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 past behavior, including juvenile behavior. 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.
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 Hit Hardest
There is little doubt that smaller Idaho communities 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 for a police officer is $49,816; the officer would start at $38,922 in Twin Falls and $31,200 in Cassia County.
“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.
The upside of the manpower shortage is job security, he said. “The agencies have jobs for you.”
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.