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Soon it may take more than a badge and a gun to wear the blue in Utah.

A behind-the-scenes debate whether to require a degree for Utah law officers has pitted rural police against their Wasatch Front peers in a showdown of police politics and loyalties.At issue are the very tenets of higher education, good policing and public service. Yet the debate has become one of geography, finances and local control.

Law enforcement administrators voted down a proposed mandate requiring a two-year degree for certification during a May meeting of the Peace Officer Standards and Training Council.

But the topic is far from dead. Many departments are leaning toward requiring a college degree for new hires.

Rural police blasted any proposed mandate as the state meddling where it shouldn't. They pointed to below-poverty-level wages as evidence that rural departments wouldn't attract a quality sample of college graduates.

"In rural Utah, the sheriff of Kane County or the sheriff of Grand County or myself, we know who will work best in our area," Juab County Sheriff Dave Carter said.

"We're the ones who are responsible. We're the ones who have the liability," Carter said. "I don't think it's right for a POST council to tell us who we have to hire. They're not accepting the responsibility for that person. We are."

But the push for a college degree has most Wasatch Front law enforcement united.

Looking for increased credibility with Utah's highly educated public, they believe a post-secondary education is the key to professionalism.

"College education doesn't necessarily make a good cop. But you give me a good cop with a college education and you've got a fantastic cop," said Wayne Shepherd, University of Utah police chief and chairman of the Utah Law Enforcement Strategic Planning Committee for Law Enforcement.

Shepherd is among those who supported a mandated degree. When the POST Council voted in May whether or not to require a two-year associate degree for new hires, the tally ended up a tie, with the committee chairman forced to vote. He opposed the mandate.

"Even though he was quite a proponent of it . . . he got put on the spot to make that vote," said Ike Orr, director of POST. "He saw the divisive effect on law enforcement it was having. And one of the things we have going for us here in Utah is that we work together."

It wasn't the first time that education was the source of debate.

"(Education) has been kind of an issue . . . for the 29 years that I've been in law enforcement," Orr said. "When I first came in, they said, `Hey, you'd better get your education because it won't be too many years (before) you'll have to have a college degree to be a cop.' "

That reality has been slow in coming.

"This issue has come up for a vote in the POST Council for the last couple of years," said West Valley Police Chief Dennis Nordfelt, who is a member of the POST Council. "It has been a very controversial issue for about two years. "I have voted for requiring increasing levels of education in all the votes until the last one. The last one I voted not to require it," Nordfelt said.

"It was being such a divisive issue in law enforcement. The feelings were so strong that it would have created animosity and enmity where that was just not necessary and worth it."

In light of the failed mandate, many police administrators, including Nordfelt, have opted to increase the standards in their own departments.

"We do not want to split law enforcement," Shepherd said. "It's more important that we get there than how we get there."

"As various individual departments require bachelor's degrees and associate degrees, eventually it will become a state requirement for certification as a police officer," Nordfelt predicted. "I think we're talking probably in the neighborhood of seven to 10 years for that to happen."

In the meantime, a committee was formed to study the proposed marriage of higher education and law enforcement. The group met Thursday in Provo to brainstorm.

"We decided because of the geography of the whole state, it is hard for some to get college education and much easier for others," Shepherd said. "Instead of pursuing the degree program, we felt we need to open a different door."

That door could be what sets a standard for education and training of officers in Utah.

"Larger departments are probably going to be looking very closely, if I read the pulse correctly, at going in the direction of education for their officers," said Glen Howard, a professor of criminal justice at Weber State University.

"Smaller departments, I don't know exactly what will happen there."



Dan Jones & Assoc. poll

What level of education should be obtained to be a police officer?

High school 31%

Junior college 39%

College 23%

Other 3%

Don't know 3%

How important is it for officers to continue education after being hired?

Very important 76%

Somewhat important 20%

Not important 3%

Don't know 2%

Do you feel high school and the 11-week police academy are adequate training in today's society?

Definitely 9%

Probably 24%

Probably not 29%

Definitely not 35%

Don't know 4%

Poll conducted Nov. 13-18, 1992. Margin of error is +/-3 percent on interviews of 1,015 Utah residents by Dan Jones & Associates.


Cops' priorities*

1991 1992 1994

#1 Training Pay/retirement Pay/retirement

#2 Retirement Education/training Increase manpower

#3 Legislation Youth gangs Education/training

#4 Youth gangs Alcohol/drugs Youth gangs/drugs

#5 Image/credibility Image/credibility Image/credibility

*Priorities based on informal surveys of Utah law enforcement officers.

Surveys conducted by Utah Law Enforcement Strategic Planning Committee.