Traverse City News and Events

A New Beginning For NMC's Police Academy

By Craig Manning | June 3, 2022

Thanks to a tight labor market and intense demand for new law enforcement personnel, Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) is revamping its police academy in hopes of (at least) doubling the number of annual graduates. That shift is the latest directional change NMC has pursued since COVID-19 shook up the job market, and signals an ongoing evolution for the community college model.

NMC announced this week that, starting in 2023, the police academy will transition to a new “condensed program format.” Currently, NMC runs one academy session per nine-month academic year. Beginning in the fall of 2023, the academy will retire the nine-month schedule in favor of two four-month academies. This shift will allow NMC to graduate two police academy classes each year – one in the fall, and one in the spring. According to the college, students “will receive the same training by attending full time for 16 weeks, instead of part-time as they do now for the nine-month academic year.”

According to Gail Kurowski, a retired Michigan State Police officer who has served as police academy director at NMC since 2019, the new approach will mark perhaps the biggest shift since the academy launched in 1986. From day one, NMC has maintained a two-semester, part-time academy. In the years since, though, NMC’s way of doing things has fallen out of favor throughout the industry, leading to declining enrollments and missed opportunities.

Of the 20 police academies in Michigan, the majority Kurowski says, “operate on somewhere between a 15-20-week schedule.” NMC is one of the only academies in the state still following a traditional academic calendar.

“Students aren't interested [in our calendar],” Kurowski says. “I turn away as many students as I sign on. I've already turned away eight students this year that were looking for a full-time police academy. I’ll take phone calls from people, and I’ll be discussing our program and highlighting things that we have that other academies don't have. For instance, we are literally the only police academy in the state of Michigan that has our own drone program as part of our basic training curriculum. But when they find out that our academy is a two-semester program, they go, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize that.’ And then they say, ‘OK, well, thank you very much,’ and they hang up.”

It’s not just the students themselves, either. Nationwide, a labor shortage in the law enforcement sector is forcing police departments to get creative about recruiting and hiring. A national survey conducted last June by the Police Executive Research Forum indicated police departments around the country were only filling around 93 percent of their budgeted positions, and that both retirements and resignations were on the rise.

One result of the shortage, Kurowski says, is that more agencies are “turning to the concept of employed recruits.” While a police department would typically prefer to hire a recruit who had already gone through academy training, scarcity of candidates has led more agencies to hire untrained individuals and then pay to put them through academy programs. With more agencies going that route, it’s increasingly important for academies to offer a structure that appeals not just to individual students but to entire police departments. 

“Police agencies are not going to sponsor someone to go through a program that takes nine months, which probably explains why NMC has never had an employed recruit as one of its students,” Kurowski tells The Ticker. “There is an agency up in the UP that recently sponsored a recruit to go to an academy somewhere downstate. And if you’ve got agencies in the UP that are employing recruits and having to send them all the way to Kalamazoo or Detroit to get training, don't you think they would stop in Traverse City first? I think they would.”

For the past three years, NMC’s police academy has averaged 11-14 students per class. While the academy has a 100 percent state exam pass rate and a 100 percent employment rate for those three classes, NMC is also falling well short of its 30-person capacity for any given class. Kurowski is confident that the change will attract more students, potentially giving NMC the ability to churn out as many as 60 graduates per year.

If that enrollment uptick happens, it could help address personnel gaps at local law enforcement agencies. Grand Traverse County Sheriff Tom Bensley spoke to county commissioners this week about his department’s difficulty hiring regular county-funded officers. The department has nine vacancies out of 26 such positions.

Both the county sheriff’s department and the Traverse City Police Department (TCPD) are also doing their part to enhance learning opportunities at NMC’s police academy. Just this week, NMC took possession of two new police cruisers donated by the sheriff’s department, and Kurowski says she has a verbal commitment from TCPD for one more. The new vehicles, mid-2010s Dodge Chargers (pictured), will replace the 2005 Ford Crown Victoria cruisers that students have been using for training. Michigan State Police is also donating equipment to be installed in the Chargers – including sirens, light bars, and interior consoles – that the 2005 Crown Vic cruisers never had.

“Our students have never gotten to turn on a siren or a light bar,” Kurowski says. “That’s going to be a huge improvement.”

The big shift in police academy operations is the latest in a series of pivots that NMC has executed since the start of the pandemic in response to a changing labor market and shifting student demands. So far, the college has launched an aviation department expansion to address a global pilot shortage, embraced short-form credentialing courses to help industry partners with employee development, and doubled down on experiential learning.

“Transforming lives and enriching the community is literally our mission as an organization,” NMC President Nick Nissley says when asked about the trend of evolution at the college. “In order to do that, we must be agile, innovative, and collaborative to meet the evolving needs of our community.”

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