Shirley J. Johnson, a 27-year veteran of the U.S. Capitol Police, had dreamed about returning to school and gaining a degree. After high school, she studied for a year at Colorado State University, but she didn't graduate, much to her regret.
Now she is getting her chance, thanks to a new police science program at George Washington University. Johnson and 34 other area law enforcement officers started studies this fall in a program that offers certificates and associate's and bachelor's degrees. The university is giving the officers scholarships that cut tuition in half.
With her recent promotion to commander of the Capitol Police hazardous incident and response division and the changing demands brought on by the September 2001 terrorist attacks, Johnson's desire to further her education and learn some new crime-fighting techniques deepened.
"When I came in 27 years ago, the only things I had to worry about were my days off," Johnson said. "Now the officers are up on Capitol Hill going through trunks. Our world has changed forever. So, clearly, our officers need to be better prepared and better educated to face all of these new challenges."
GWU saw an opportunity to serve police and the community through the new program at its College of Professional Studies. The studies are open to law enforcement officers with at least two years' experience. Most of the officers are taking one or two classes while working full time.
"Clearly, since the events of 9/11, there has been much more attention to the need for trained professionals for police and security personnel," said Roger Whitaker, the college's dean. "I think the more training that police officers have, the better officers they make. And it's also better for the citizens."
The first class includes officers from the District, Arlington County, Metro, the Capitol Police, the Park Police, the Secret Service and the Georgetown University and GWU security forces. Another class will join the program in January.
Officers can take courses from seven colleges at the university, studying such topics as homeland security, first response initiatives and forensic investigation, said Richard F. Southby, the police science program's academic director.
Police officials said they welcome the help.
"It's a tremendous educational opportunity for our members to participate in something like this," D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said. "First of all, you have a very prestigious university like George Washington . . . and to do it in a way that they can really focus on criminal justice as the major, it's really going to help our department in a lot of ways."
Ramsey said the program meshes with the department's emphasis on education. The force is set to raise its education requirements in January, calling for future officers to have completed 60 college credit hours. The previous requirement was a high school diploma.
"The job is becoming more and more complex," Ramsey said. "Officers now have to be problem solvers. And you have this whole job of dealing with homeland security. The job of a police officer has really evolved over the years, and it's my feeling that having some college education is only going to make the job easier."
GWU President Stephen J. Trachtenberg created the scholarship to reduce tuition by 50 percent for officers selected for the program, and the university named the stipend in honor of former D.C. mayor Walter E. Washington, who died last year. All officers get the scholarships as long as they remain in good academic standing.
Some police departments, including the District's, also provide tuition assistance.
The scholarship was a big help for Johnson, she said.
She already has completed a stress management class and is now taking an ethics course. She plans to study for a bachelor's degree and is eager to spread the word about the program to her colleagues.
"I'm motivated, ultimately, for the people I lead," Johnson said. "It's very important to me. I can take [what I've learned in class] back and bring it to my troops."