By Hattie Bernstein
Getting a college education is a top-down priority in the Garden City, Georgia, police department, where three police officers and the department’s records clerk are online students in SNHU’s criminal justice bachelor’s degree program.succeed.snhu.edu
It’s so important, in fact, that the chief sometimes allows officers to do their homework during slow periods.
“We can’t devote the whole evening to school work, but it’s a luxury to be able to sign on and work,” says Sgt. Bill Toole, adding that officers help each other. “We do study with other people who have taken that class.”
Toole, who managed new car dealerships for 22 years before becoming a police officer 10 years ago, says going back to school was daunting. After high school, he enlisted in the Air Force; except for a policing class at a local community college, he hadn’t been in school for decades.
“It was scary,” he says.
Juggling work, school and family is never easy. But balance school work with a job in a town with the state’s fifth-highest crime rate and a median household income that’s 40 percent lower than the state average, a schedule that requires officers to work the night shift every 28 days, plus kids and a spouse, and the challenges can seem particularly daunting.
“It’s extremely difficult,” says Chief David Lyons, a 10th-grade dropout who went on to earn his GED; his associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees; and his Juris Doctor.
But the return is being a better police officer and having a heightened sense of loyalty to the job, Lyons says.
“In today’s environment, you have to be willing to open yourself to new ideas,” says the chief. “The more education, the better off you are.”
This doesn’t mean that the Garden City police officers spend more time studying and less preventing and solving crimes. The job comes first, of course. And it’s not a piece of cake. Yet Lyons gives his employees “as much leeway” as possible — including time to hit both the books and the gym.
Lt. Timothy McMillan ’15, the first officer in the agency to enroll at SNHU and the first to graduate, says there’s been a change in the air since officers and records clerk Stephanie Willingham started working on their degrees.
“You wouldn’t expect to walk into a shift change and hear people talking about geography, social impacts or a host of different topics that aren’t typical subjects there,” says McMillan, who earned his math degree online at SNHU. “One or two people go back to school, and the other officers hear them talking about it and they become interested. They see people managing a full-time job, a family and also school, and they see it can be done.”
When he’s finishing his homework at 3 a.m., Sgt. Shawn Myers sometimes reminds himself that the effort is going to pay off.
“It’s not easy, and I can tell you that being in school I’ve been the most stressed out I’ve ever been in my life,” says Myers, a Marines veteran and 15-year member of the Garden City Police Department.
But Myers is certain that a degree will open doors.
“In this economy, jobs are hard to get,” he says. “A college degree will give me more options.”
Likewise Officer Chad Wierenga, a five-year veteran, is keeping an eye on the future while he manages the job, school work and family life.
“You’ve got to have discipline,” he says.
It also helps to have colleagues and supervisors who are willing to help.
“My lieutenant was a math major, and I knock on his door when I can’t figure out the work,” Toole says.
McMillan, the lieutenant, credits SNHU for supporting applicants and students. After Garden City officers enrolled at SNHU in the College of Online and Continuing Education, he says, representatives of other universities — often close by — started trickling in looking for recruits. But without result.
“SNHU has a loyal fan base at our police department,” McMillan says.