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Becoming a cop: formal education just a first step


November 4, 2013
By Olivia Schneider

843 words – MR

Becoming a cop: formal education just a first step

Phil Harmon knows he’ll have to pay his dues in order to become a cop.

Harmon is a New Brunswick resident and high-school graduate who moved to Kingston, Ontario in the fall for a two-year police foundations program at a community college. Graduates and professors tell first-year students that it’s getting “harder and harder to find a job” in policing. Harmon acknowledges that he’s a little concerned by this message, but “not overly so.” Harmon went to Ontario for school partly because there are few formal educational programs for would-be police officers in the Maritimes.

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Since 1971, the key player for training in the region has been the Atlantic Police Academy (APA), housed at Holland College on Prince Edward Island. It offers a well-regarded comprehensive diploma program and has graduated thousands of would-be police officers in the past 30-plus years. In the past decade, two New Brunswick colleges, Oulton College in Moncton and the Miramichi campus of New Brunswick Community College (NBCC), have added their own programs for prospective officers.

The goal of both programs is to prepare students for what they will do at the academy and also give graduates a competitive edge when it comes to hiring. George Smith, a NBCC police foundations instructor, says the eight-year-old program was developed in consultation with the APA. His colleague, Evelyn Gilliss, says students get a good grounding before going to the academy.

“We like to think we’re teaching them something here,” she says, adding that many of their students come straight from high school, making the program a good bridge to the APA. “When they’re young and their only frame of reference is TV shows and car chases, they only see the harder enforcement side of policing. This program reinforces the community appreciation approach.” Gilliss says many of NBCC’s graduates now work in law enforcement.

Oulton College’s program focuses on academics, says Preston Matthews, but also offers reality-based training in defensive tactics, stress tests, fights (using fight suits) and laser pistols. One of the goals is to offer real-world policing skills in a safe environment. He notes that Oulton graduate report having an easier time at the APA because of this training. When it comes to finding jobs, Matthews says, “more than our fair share are successful.”

Good training is only part of the equation. There are many more graduates of policing programs than there are jobs in policing. BNPP Regional Police serves four communities in northern New Brunswick – Beresford, Nigadoo, Petit-Rocher and Pointe-Verte. Chief Josh Ouellette says he doesn’t have the budget for new hires in the next year but gets about 12 applications a month. “It’s ridiculous how many people want to be cops,” he says.

Community college programs are structured to address this reality. The programs at NBCC and Oulton – not to mention the APA – are designed to train students for jobs in private security, corrections, as sheriffs and in border control and other security work. Harmon plans to seek employment in corrections for a few years before applying to police agencies, a strategy he hopes will boost his chances to eventually become a police officer.

One thing both college faculty and those who hire stress is the importance of new graduates building a strong resume and continuing to work on relevant skills: graduating from a community college program or the APA is just a start. Jamie DeGrace, HR director for Bathurst, says “good attitude, willingness to learn and effective and polite communication skills” are essential. Shanshan Xu, an HR assistant for Halifax Regional Police, says “lack of experience in interviewing and writing” is an obstacle for many.

Xu says community involvement is key to eventually getting hired. She advises would-be officers to “get involved with the community and get life experience,” and notes the value of “building networks by participating in different events or by volunteering in the community or with the local police agencies.” Ouellette agrees that volunteering is important in building a resume. He also advises continuing formal education and taking college courses even if an applicant has already graduated from the academy. He also suggests joining the military or applying to the RCMP, where there are likely to be more opportunities and a chance to gain bigger-city experience.

Ouellette has one other piece of advice for applicants: “Keep your nose clean.”

Limited job availability in Atlantic Canada is a fact of life. Harmon understands that reality, saying he would move back to New Brunswick only if he was “guaranteed a job.” Despite the scarcity of current policing jobs in the region, that possibility may not be as far away as many would-be cops think.

DeGrace’s says young people hoping to become police officers need to be patient. “The next wave of baby boomer retirements will create numerous vacancies.” Ouellette agrees. “It’s hard for a young person to get in right now but I think in five years we’ll be screaming for them because all the old guys are going to retire, including me, I hope!”