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 , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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."

"What happened on 9/11 definitely helped to improve my image of the police," says Chanau Rhee, a senior who had originally planned to attend medical school after college but now finds himself questioning that decision. "I want a career I could dedicate myself to 100 percent," he says. "I don't imagine myself as a street cop for the rest of my life, but I like the ideals of law enforcement."

In addition, he says, there's an altruistic component. "For law enforcement to succeed, we need more educated people. I'd want to be one of the ones to take care of things."

The desire to tap into that kind of attitude has also been the driving force behind the national Police Corps (a bit like a cross between the Peace Corps and ROTC), which Congress began funding in 1996. The Police Corps urges young people to commit to serving on a local police force for four years in exchange for a college scholarship. The 21 weeks of training the candidates receive after college and before beginning their stint as police officers include reading lists replete with writers such as Aristotle and George Orwell. It also aims to create a better understanding of American history and the Constitution.

Young people with a high level of "moral intelligence" will prove both diligent law enforcers and careful protectors of constitutional rights, says Adam Walinsky, founder of the Washington-based Police Corps.

But in addition to more-philosophical considerations, there are some practical reasons for recruiting the well-educated to police work, says Police Corps director Robbie Maxwell. "Back in the 1930s, with J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI, the agents all had pistols," he says. "Then the bad guys got machine guns, so they all got machine guns."

Today, he says, many of the bad guys have education.

Another reason for police recruiters to try their hand at more-selective college campuses is that the students they're finding there today are probably receptive to police work in a way that recent generations were not. The Vietnam War era brought displays of disdain whenever military or CIA recruiters came knocking, but few vestiges of such sentiment remain now.

"This generation is more responsive to public service, volunteerism, more respectful of authority," says Elaine Deck, project coordinator at the International Association of Chiefs of Police in Alexandria, Va.

While recruiters are still concerned about the large numbers of positions to be filled, Ms. Deck says, some of them are encouraged by the attitude young people today seem to have about police work.

"It's the idea of being able to have an impact, the appeal of the essential," said Yale junior Eli Muller as he waited to hear Waters's pitch. "Even if you're a lawyer, you're still one step removed." A career in the FBI would interest him more, Mr. Muller says, but he'd like to be informed about the possibilities offered by the police.

As for Mr. Rhee, his law-enforcement aspirations became much more than theoretical after Waters's enthusiastic description of life and work in the NYPD. "I was very impressed, and I am seriously interested," he says. "He has a job that makes a difference."

Asked how his parents might react if he tells them his plans have shifted from medical school to the police academy, he predicts that at first his father will be shocked and dismayed. "But he'd rather see me happy than forced into something I don't want," he adds.

There is no intention of fast-tracking Ivy League recruits once they sign up. No matter how elite the educational background, they will experience the same initial training and begin life as street cops. And that's as it should be, says Robert McCrie, chairman of the department of law, police science, and criminal justice administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "You can't make special deals or offer special compensation packages," he insists. But he believes the NYPD can and should work harder at carving out career paths that are fast-paced and varied enough to hold onto individuals who are seeking challenge and personal growth.

A candidate like Rhee – academically gifted and highly idealistic – would appear to be an excellent find for the NYPD. But does the interest of one student justify a day of Waters's time?

"A single, bright individual can make an enormous difference," says Professor McCrie as he refers back to the case of di Baccaria. "It is absolutely worth the effort."

• E-mail marjorie@csmonitor.com

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