Blue Scholarship offers hope for aspiring officers

The first graduating class of Missouri Blue Scholarship recipients at Lincoln University has now entered the workforce.

Gov. Mike Parson touted the Blue Scholarship as one of Missouri's major achievements for 2022. In his 2023 State of the State address, Parson honored two scholarship recipients and said the program had already been a success.

Of the two Blue Scholarship Graduates in the Lincoln University Law Enforcement Training Academy (LULETA), Hannah Clark has just begun working for Capitol Police.

Clark applied for the Blue Scholarship and was given $1,200 to pursue her career in law enforcement. She said the money helped her cover some of the expenses she had as a student, like ammunition for firearms.

"I think that scholarship is great. I know college and all these trainings are really expensive, so I think it's a great opportunity for people to be able to try and accomplish their dreams," she said.

Clark is set to be sworn in by the Department of Public Safety on Tuesday afternoon. She will be the first person with a Blue Scholarship to serve with the Capitol Police.

The Blue Scholarship can pay up to $5,000 for an aspiring police officer who has not been sponsored by a police department to attend a police academy. The scholarship would make attending a police academy, depending on the institution, almost entirely free.

LULETA's other Blue Scholarship Graduate, Officer Eric Snook, has begun working at the Fulton Police Department. Clark and Snook are the first students to graduate from the LULETA program with Blue Scholarship funding.

The scholarship was initially proposed to take effect in 2022. Officers Clark and Snook, who graduated from the LULETA in December, are in the first graduating class able to take advantage of the Blue Scholarship.

"We designed the Missouri Blue Scholarship to help support men and women interested in dedicating their lives to law enforcement careers and we're extremely pleased with the success of the scholarship program," Parson said.

Snook had been trying for years to go to a law enforcement academy, but was unable to complete training academies in the past for financial reasons.

"So in 2018, I went to another academy, and I wasn't able to work. Bills became an issue, I had to leave," Snook said.

Snook found out about Lincoln University years later and began attending the academy with student loans. Snook was awarded the full $5,000 for the LULETA program a month before his graduation.

"I used student loans, I'm a parent, I have three kids, so when I hear, 'Hey, they'll pay you back for your academy costs,' it perked up my attention pretty quick," he said. "So I went home and (Chief Gary Hill) texted me that night, or the night after, and said, 'Hey, put in for it. If you don't get it, you don't get it. But at least you can try.' I put in for it, ultimately got it, and it paid off all my student loans for going through the academy."

Fulton Police Chief William Ladwig said the Blue Scholarship also has a strong impact for police departments, as well.

"The Blue Scholarship has made it possible for people who want to work in law enforcement to have a career. It helps offset the cost of living while they're in the academy and it's created a pool of applicants that are more diverse. So that we can hire good quality people that represent the whole community," Ladwig said.

Clark recognized the lack of female officers when she was growing up in Owensboro, Kentucky, and said the Blue Scholarship was able to remove barriers for women to pursue a career in law enforcement. She started her education at Lincoln University as a criminal justice major on a softball scholarship and was able to pursue a lifelong dream once the LULETA program opened.

"I think growing up, when I was back home in Kentucky, we didn't have that many female officers, and I have always wanted to be someone that other people look up to. I think it's important to be able to show other little girls that, even if there's not a lot of people doing what you want to do, you can still accomplish anything you put your mind to," Clark said.

The Blue Scholarship has also reduced costs for smaller police departments, who don't have to pay as much to sponsor potential officers to go to a police academy.

"We can put that money to use elsewhere, to get equipment and uniforms and other community projects that we wouldn't have been able to," Ladwig said

Parson's office announced earlier this month that it had spent the entire $1 million allotted to the scholarship for the 2023 fiscal year. The funds paid for 217 Blue Scholarship recipients and the Governor's Office made a request for an additional $175,000 to pay for 35 more applicants. A spokesperson for the governor also said 30 applicants are on a waiting list for Blue Scholarship funding.

"The Missouri Blue Scholarship assists future officers who will serve and protect in both urban and rural departments across our state. There continues to be a tremendous need for law enforcement officers and that is why we are requesting additional funds for Missouri Blue Scholarships and continuing the program in our Fiscal Year 2024 Budget," Parson said.

LULETA is run by the Lincoln University Police Department. Lincoln University Police Chief Gary Hill has been with the program since its inception. Hill said programs like the Blue Scholarship can be the difference between someone deciding whether or not to go to a law enforcement training program.

"When we look at the big issue right now, like with student loan debt, having almost the entire portion of your academy paid for by scholarship helps with that income-to-debt ratio," Hill said.

The LULETA program has trained officers that have gone on to serve in Ferguson, St. Louis, Mexico, Cole County, Callaway County and many other communities across the state.

In Missouri, only a few law enforcement agencies have their own training academy, including St. Louis, Kansas City, Springfield, the Missouri State Highway Patrol and Cass County. Most people training for a career in law enforcement must complete their training at a college or independent location.

This means many aspiring police officers must cover bill for their training.

"To put yourself through a police academy now costs roughly $5,000 and that's not an insignificant amount to invest in your future. So I really do hope that it turns the momentum for those that may be wanting to do it but couldn't afford it," said Jefferson City Police Chief Eric Wilde.

He said the Jefferson City Police Department has begun to offer a $10,000 signing bonus to any applying officers who have already completed Peace Officer Standards and Training Program, including Blue Scholarship recipients.

"We're not immune to a shortage of good applicants. We've struggled with that over the past couple of years, so we're looking for every opportunity to get our staff back to full strength and provide services to the community that they deserve," Wilde said.

The Jefferson City Police Department currently has around 80 working officers. Full strength, Wilde said, is 91 officers.

At the start of the 2024 fiscal year, July 1, an additional $1 million can be used for a new group of applicants. Anyone who is eligible for attending a law enforcement academy before July 1, 2024, may apply on the Missouri Department of Public Safety website.

The scholarship can be combined with other student aid benefits like GI Bill benefits, federal Pell grants and any other scholarships a student qualifies for.

In order to qualify, you must be a U.S. citizen and resident of Missouri who has completed a GED or equivalent. You must also be 21 or older. In order to qualify for this fiscal year's scholarship, your class must begin by June 1, 2023.

Current students at the Lincoln University Police Academy are awaiting their decisions for the scholarship, which Hill said would be announced in late February.