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Troopers' education is a priority

November 25, 1997

Troopers' education is a priority

By BRENDAN KIRBY

Staff Writer

Maryland State Police Trooper George Fockler did not give much thought to higher education when he graduated from Clear Spring High School in 1985.

But after a stint in the Armed Forces, Fockler said he found himself with military-sponsored college fund. So the Williamsport resident began taking courses at Frostburg State University's Hagerstown campus in 1989, balancing his time between homework and enforcing the law.

It's been tough, Fockler said. The demands of his job - first as a Washington County sheriff's deputy and more recently as a state police officer - are strenuous. He said he has only been able to take classes in bits, a couple of nights each week.

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Some semesters he has not been able to take any at all, he said.

But after nearly eight years of on-and-off studies, Fockler, 30, can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. After this semester, he said he will have only one more class before he earns a bachelor's degree in administration of justice.

Professionally, Fockler said a degree affords obvious benefits. But in addition to advancement opportunities, he said he sought the degree with an eye on the future.

"If I get hurt on the job, I want something to fall back on," Fockler said. "If you get hurt and can't do something else, you're stuck."

A college education also helps the state police, according to Lt. Donnie Knott, commander of the Hagerstown barracks. He said the state has moved aggressively to make education a priority among its police officers.

The state has launched a number of initiatives in recent years to boost the number of troopers with college degrees.

Knott said the state has agreements with the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University to send troopers for undergraduate and graduate degrees. Also, troopers who complete the police academy automatically earn 45 credits toward an associate's degree in criminal justice from Catonsville Community College.

Knott, an enthusiastic supporter of education, practices what he preaches. He earned a bachelor's of science in technology and management in 1992 while working as a trooper and is on target for a master's next year.

Knott said his education has broadened his perspective, benefiting him in intangible ways.

"There's more ways of doing things. It kind of forms a basis of putting everyone on the same page in terms of getting the job done," he said. "That's directly related to our everyday duties."

Knott credited state police Superintendent Col. David Mitchell with slowly changing the culture at the agency, where a college degree still is not required. He said some veteran state troopers have resisted the change, arguing that a college degree does not necessarily determine a good police officer.

But Knott said the notion has gained a foothold. The number of troopers going to school part time has steadily increased as has the number of recruits who already have college degrees when they enter the police academy.

Mitchell, too, practices what he preaches. He earned a law degree while he was superintendent, Knott said.

"We're no different than any other organization, private or otherwise. We live in a society where education is continual," he said.

The direction in Maryland mirrors a national trend, according to experts. According to the American Police Association, an Alexandria, Va.-based association, 25 percent of the nation's 600,000 police officers have a bachelor's degree or higher.

Dr. Louis A. Mayo, the group's executive director, said that number is growing by about 2 percent a year.

At the same time, many of the country's police departments have beefed up education requirements for new recruits, Mayo said. Four state police departments now require recruits to have four-year degrees as do at least 15 local departments.

Mayo said the benefits of an educated police force are not new. He said it was recognized by a presidential commission as early as 1931.

Mayo said police officers must make snap decisions about the complexities of the law in crisis situations.

In that context, he said, it is crucial that police officers are as educated as possible. Mayo said that becomes even more important considering police have life-and-death authority.

"That's an awesome power," he said.

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