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Scouting for street smarts

With a New emphasis on critical thinking in Police Work, The NYPD takes its recruiting pitch to ivy league campuses

By Marjorie CoeymanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 16, 2002


In 1764, a young student named Cesare di Baccaria, working toward a graduate degree at the University of Pavia in Italy, wrote an essay on crime and punishment so insightful and so profound that it challenged centuries-old thinking and ultimately changed penal codes throughout Europe.

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Today, the New York City Police Department wants to see a few modern-day di Baccarias putting on uniforms. The NYPD is enjoying a post-Sept. 11 surge in popularity. Never- theless, it is desperate to replace large numbers of retiring officers, and hopes that perhaps a few young Ivy League college graduates will help to bring the best of the academy into the heart of police work.

The NYPD always recruits on a number of college campuses, but generally focuses on city schools, particularly those like John Jay College of Criminal Justice – most of whose students are already looking for careers in law enforcement.

But this year the department trekked to the campuses of Yale University in New Haven, Conn., Columbia University in New York, and Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Recruiters also visited other highly competitive schools such as Temple University in Philadelphia and Howard University in Washington.

Boosting the educational level of the police force is not a new idea. The desire to create tighter ties between police forces and schools of higher education has surfaced at various times over the past several decades.

But the sense of urgency may be greater today. Many of the nation's 18,000 police departments are concerned that they may not attract enough recruits at any education level to replace large numbers of Vietnam vets and others who swelled departments during a hiring wave in the 1970s and are now ready for retirement.

Today's police work also demands more academic strength among recruits. Computer and data-analysis skills are increasingly important, and, especially in New York, departments must cooperate more with antiterrorism intelligence specialists.

NYPD's efforts to go after the cream of the college crop have provoked scorn among some observers, who point out that a starting officer's annual salary ($31,305) wouldn't cover the cost of even a year at an Ivy League school. Others wondered what the typical parent would say when informed that his or her highly educated child was heading off for the police academy.

But for many criminal-justice experts, the need to bring highly educated people into policing is no laughing matter. "I heartily support the idea," says George Kelling of the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J. Professor Kelling says it is essential for a modern police force to be staffed by problem-solvers, men and women capable of questioning assumptions the way they might have been trained to do when they tackled classroom debates and essays in college.

"And if we want to bring these very smart people into policing," he asks, "why not go to Ivy campuses?"

NYPD Inspector Jim Waters echoed Kelling's question earlier this month when he found himself standing in an ornate lecture hall at Yale University, about to offer a recruitment pitch.

Inspector Waters – who has served the NYPD as a street cop, an undercover detective, and a precinct head, among other positions – admitted that this was the first recruitment talk he had ever given, but asked cheerfully, "Why not start at the top?"

A few minutes later, with fewer than 10 Yale students in the room – joined by a handful of New Haven locals not enrolled at Yale but interested in police work – Waters stood under engravings of Virgil, Newton, and Plato and spoke of his 21 years on the force.

"This is the greatest job in the world," he assured his listeners. "Every day you make a difference. Nothing compares to this."

Dressed in uniform, with bright blue eyes, a bristling crew cut, and a pair of shoulders as square as the corners on a box of Wheaties, Waters seemed an unlikely mentor to the denim-clad young people slouching low in their seats. But despite the small turnout, at least some of the Yale students present insisted that the idea of searching out NYPD candidates in Ivy halls was not as far-fetched as it might have seemed two or three decades ago, and was significantly more compelling since Sept. 11.

"Their popularity is way up around here since 9/11," says Robert Bernheim, a senior majoring in history. He ultimately intends to go to law school, but says he would definitely consider a year or two on the street working as a cop before he heads back to school. "I'm intrigued. If you're looking for adventure, this is it."