FARGO-North Dakota legislators are mulling granting law enforcement officers a tuition waiver to help them earn a college degree, an effort to recruit and retain officers.

As introduced, Senate Bill 2054 would provide full tuition and fee support for full-time law enforcement officers to help them earn an associate or bachelor's degree at a North Dakota public college or university, provided they meet certain requirements.

Sen. Diane Larson, R-Bismarck, sponsored the bill at the request of police commanders, who report having difficulty hiring qualified officers. Randy Ziegler, deputy chief of the Bismarck Police Department, came to her with the idea after learning Nebraska has a tuition support program for law enforcement officers.

"He said I wonder if we could do something like this in North Dakota," Larson said.

Larson, who spent 23 years as a youth counselor for the department, but now is retired, readily agreed.

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"Over time it's been getting more and more difficult to recruit new officers," she said.

For years, tuition support has been an effective recruiting tool for the National Guard, Larson added.

Chief David Todd of the Fargo Police Department testified in support of the bill when it was heard by the Senate Education Committee on Jan. 10. Hiring has become more difficult, as the pool of applicants has shrunk significantly over time, he said in an interview.

"I have seen a trend," Todd said. When he applied to be an officer 30 years ago, he was one of 400 applicants for three openings. "It was a gymnasium full of people," Todd said.

Now, typically between 30 and 40 applicants sign up to take a qualifying test, and only half show up. Of those, a third "wash out" on the written or physical test, leaving only five or six viable candidates. Vacancies typically run from 4 or 5 to 10 or 11 officers at a time, the chief said.

"It's a challenge to find good candidates," Todd said.

"I don't think we're unique," the chief added, mentioning that the workforce shortage remains the top concern among local employers. "We're all competing for employees and law enforcement is no exception to that."

Tuition support would give law enforcement agencies another way of trying to attract good candidates, along with competitive salaries and benefits, Todd said.

More than half of Fargo's police force has a bachelor's degree, he said, adding that an associate degree is a minimum requirement. Through a city program, police officers can apply for tuition assistance, with payments partly tied to their class performance.

"I always want to see my people further their education and training," Todd said, adding that three or four officers apply for the program every semester. Some are finishing their bachelor's, while supervisors might be earning a master's, he said.

One of those officers was Mike Mitchell, who earned a master's degree in strategic management with help from the program.

"It was incredibly beneficial," said Mitchell, who retired from the Fargo Police Department last year after 25 years. He now handles the tuition program as the city's training and staff development coordinator,

"I think it's a great idea," Mitchell said of the tuition support bill. "The tuition reimbursement program of the city is part of the benefit package that helps draw people."

After its first hearing, the bill seemed to have support from the committee, but likely will be amended, Larson said.

State higher education officials estimated the cost would be $14.1 million per biennium, a figure based on an estimated 1,200 eligible officers. Larson calls that estimate "crazy."

"They must think every law enforcement officer in North Dakota is going to go to school," she said.

Committee members discussed restricting the program to officers who have been employed at least two years. Larson's estimate of the number of officers who would be eligible is 470.

Because of the budget crunch, committee members talked about reducing the tuition waivers to 25 percent, with a cap of $1 million, Larson said.

"We have to do something to incentivize young people to look at law enforcement as a career," she said.