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A pilot program hopes to create a college-to-police-department pipeline

 A young woman in a police uniform raises her right hand. A man with his back to the camera faces her and mirrors her posture.
Kathryn Mobley
Beavercreek Mayor Bob Stone swears in Officer Taylor Smart in November of 2022. She is one of the first graduates of the College to Law Enforcement Pathway Program.

In 2020, thousands of Ohioans gathered in protests across the state, calling for police reform. Since then, municipalities have initiated a number of changes to address police brutality, including partnerships with Black-led organizations and community workshops on citizen rights.

Patrick Oliver, director of the Criminal Justice Program at Cedarville University, believes the issue lies with recruits.

“Law enforcement agencies hire their problems,” he said.

Oliver is a Black man and 28-year law enforcement veteran, including as the former Cleveland police chief. He said in his experience, it’s a minority of officers behind police brutality.

“When you get people in the job that are involved in police misconduct, it’s because the hiring process did not do what it's intended to do. They had a history of misbehaving that wasn't identified in the selection process,” he said.

After the death of George Floyd and subsequent protests in 2020, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine created the Office of Law Enforcement Recruitment. Oliver designed the College to Law Enforcement Pathway Program as part of that state office. Its goal: create a hiring pool of highly educated, physically and mentally fit individuals by tapping college students, and specifically focus on cultivating women and people of color as candidates.

The program’s based at Cedarville, about 25 miles east of Dayton, and Central State University, one of only two historically Black universities in Ohio. Program participants majoring in criminal justice go through a rigorous physical and psychological training. They must maintain a 3.0 GPA, pass a polygraph, and background and medical checks.

Plus they have to live out six core values, including self-control and an orientation toward service. But Oliver struggled to get law enforcement agencies to participate.

“The majority of agencies rejected it out of hand because it didn't fit their paradigm. That's not how hiring is done,” he said.

Undaunted, Oliver knocked on doors and worked the phones. Eventually, in 2021 about a dozen agencies joined the two-year pilot program.

Last year, Taylor Smart graduated from Cedarville University and the CLEP program. In November she formally joined the Beavercreek Police Department. Smart credits CLEP for teaching her specific skills.

“We had to figure out how to talk to people, and it was really good, before we even got to the academy, to figure out how to deal with certain situations and what to look out for,” she said.

Beavercreek Police Chief Jeff Fioritta said Smart is on patrol and under probation for the next five months.

“We’re getting young people who are excited about this noble career. And we get to see them for 150 hours to make sure this is somebody we feel would be a fit for our agency,” he said.

 A Black man in a suit stands next to a white woman and a white man in police uniforms. All three are smiling.
Kathryn Mobley
WYSO Public Radio
Dr. Patrick Oliver, designed College to Law Enforcement Pathway Program. Officer Taylor Smart, Cedarville University graduate, completed CLEP program. Beavercreek Police Chief Jeff Fiorita hired Smart and plans to hire a second CLEP program participant.

Others doubt if CLEP can reduce questionable fatal police shootings and other misconduct.

“Diverse police officers is fine. But it doesn’t matter if they have the same mindset and mentality that leads to brutality,” said Jared Grandy, a community organizer in Dayton.

He argues the system itself needs to change – not the officers.

“The programs that currently exist have institutional bias. And if they're not improving policing in America, they're just making these candidates better at being good in a bad institution,” he said.

CLEP’s creator, Patrick Oliver, disagrees. Ultimately, he says, the good will outweigh the bad.

“If you produce more highly qualified applicants, you're going to have less officers involved in police misconduct. This is not a quantity solution: it’s a quality solution,” he said.

A handful of students have graduated from the College to Law Enforcement Pilot Program and been hired by various Ohio agencies. It’s now under state evaluation.

Kathryn Mobley is an Education and Politics Reporter at Ohio Newsroom member station WYSO in Dayton.