By Sheriff James R. Voutour, Niagara County
To hire a police officer in New York State, most sheriff’s offices and police departments conduct a civil service test followed by interviews with candidates who were successful test-takers. Following the interview, which may last only 30 minutes, an extensive background check is performed and a new officer is chosen. That new officer is hired and attends the next police academy for 22 weeks. An officer is paid full wages and benefits during both the academy and a field training program that begins after the academy and can last up to an additional 12 weeks. An agency must wait nearly 35 weeks while a recruit is trained and certified. At times, a police agency may have an opening, but an academy might not be scheduled to start for several months. This delay forces the police agency to be understaffed as it waits for an academy to begin. Why is it done this way? Because it always has been!
The Niagara County Law Enforcement Academy dates back to the early 1970’s. For more than 40 years, the procedure followed was as outlined above. Long periods of time when vacated positions remained unfilled, leading to overtime and fatigued staff were not unusual. It was also Niagara County: Adopting a Public-Private Partnership for Police Training found that the on-the-job performance of some recruits who were impressive interviewees and academy participants did not measure up once they entered the regular work force. Unfortunately, these underachievers were constants for the next 20 to 30 years. There were also instances where, after paying salaries of police officers for many weeks during the academy, some failed to successfully complete the academy and others would leave upon graduation for a department other than the one that had been paying for the recruit. It was time for change. It was time for action.
Finding a Better Way to Train
In 2010, the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office approached administrators at Niagara University in Lewiston, New York to discuss a better method of recruiting and training police officers. Niagara University is a private, Catholic university with approximately 4,000 students. The University offers more than 80 academic majors and nearly 60 minors with a strong criminal justice program. Boasting 15 Division I NCAA-sanctioned athletic teams, the college offers world-class athletic and training facilities, as well. Discussions quickly revealed the ingredients were present for a public-private partnership with vast potential.
The Niagara County Sheriff’s Office was seeking a platform to attract prospective police candidates to enroll in a “pre-service” police academy. The strategy was to draw potential candidates to enroll in this new academy, at their cost, to begin forming a “pool” of trained recruits. Niagara University was pursuing innovative methods to entice new students to its campus. A perfect marriage was about to spring to life.
Establishing the Pre-Service Law Enforcement Academy
The Niagara County Sheriff’s Office, Niagara University and the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services worked together to develop the Niagara County Pre-Service Law Enforcement Academy on the campus of Niagara University. A curriculum, known as phase one of the New York State standards for police officer certification, was formulated. Niagara University reviewed the course work and created a full semester of college credit for completion of the academy. Students enroll in the University program after the academy conducts a complete background check and physical fitness evaluation. Each candidate is pre-screened to ensure that he or she is able to obtain employment in the law enforcement field before being accepted into the academy.
Once a candidate has passed academic and character evaluations with both the University and the law enforcement academy, a letter of acceptance is granted and the student begins either a full-time academy or a part-time academy, depending on the candidate’s other college work load. The students receive the same law enforcement training as a hired police officer with the exception of a few classes, such as firearms and homeland security. Once a pre-service recruit is hired, the remaining classes can be completed within a week. At the same time, the students are earning undergraduate credit toward a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.
Each academy instructor is a New York State certified police instructor and most are currently police officers in the Niagara County area. The instructors in the police academy are paid by Niagara University as college instructors. The Niagara County Sheriff’s Office and the Niagara Falls Police Department each fund a full-time academy co-director to run the day-today operations of the academy and monitor compliance with New York State standards.
A Successful Public-Private Partnership
The benefits of this public-private partnership are enormous. The police agencies in the Greater Niagara area are now able to hire trained police officers to fill their vacancies very quickly. After three years of the partnership, local agencies, including the Sheriff’s Office, are finding that several candidates on their civil service list have enrolled and graduated from the academy. The savings of hiring a trained officer can be as much as $100,000 per hire. The police agencies are also able to obtain the benefits of a 22-week interview instead of a 30-minute interview. Local agencies are now actually competing to obtain the best and the brightest of the academy graduates!
Niagara University has increased enrollment as well as revenue and has found a captive audience to recruit into its criminal justice master’s degree program. The University was pleasantly surprised to find several officers, including this writer, enrolled in the master’s program as well. Finally, the University has also found a new sense of security. Having trained law enforcement officers on the campus at all times provides a safe environment for students and staff. Since the partnership began, the academy has attracted several large-scale training seminars for law enforcement, including multiple high-profile trainings from around the country. The academy also provides free training for campus safety officers and security forces at the Niagara Power Project, New York State’s largest electricity producer which is located immediately adjacent to the campus.
There’s an old saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” It was broken. A new public-private alliance fixed it.