By Susan Tebben
Ohio Capital Journal
COLUMBUS – Police officer trainees and current law enforcement accentuated the positives of companion bills at the Ohio Statehouse to lower the minimum age to become a police officer from 21 to 18.
Pataskala Police Department officer Cami Finley is currently completing her field training in a job she said she felt “called” to as a high schooler deciding between careers ranging from teaching to the military.
She was lucky to be able to get the job at the police department, she said, something that she thinks should be an expanded option for people her age and younger, as is written in Senate Bill 53 and its companion bill, House Bill 84. Concerns about maturity of 18-year-olds paint a broad stroke over what could be a good group of officers, she said.
“I believe there are people older than the age of 21 who may not be mature enough for the job,” Finley told the Ohio Senate Committee on Government Oversight. “Age and maturity are not one and the same.”
Her fellow patrolman, 21-year-old officer William Hayes, said being able to work in Pataskala after graduating from Watkins Memorial High School in 2020 closed a chapter of “sheer luck” and uncertain circumstances that he had hoped would lead to a career in law enforcement.
Without some high school courses credited to him as he worked through community college and a city charter in Pataskala that allows anyone 18 and up to work for the city – without specifically excepting police officers – Hayes said he would have found himself stuck waiting for his age to qualify him for service.
He said lowering the minimum age would help people like him get into the service more quickly, and in turn address some departments’ officer shortages.
“Giving departments permissive ability to hire officers at eighteen will give them the opportunity to properly staff their department and have enough resources to protect the community they serve,” Hayes said.
Addressing questions about the ability to determine the maturity of 18-year-olds, and their readiness to serve as law enforcement officers, Finley told the House Homeland Security Committee, the same day she appeared in the Senate committee on the companion bill, that department leadership keeps a close eye on young officers, and hold the discretion to pull an officer away from the front line.
“At our department, (sergeants) have super close supervision on us, and if they feel that we are not ready, they won’t allow us to go out,” Finley said.
Members of the Homeland Security Committee also tried to quash concerns themselves, criticizing the inquiries being made on the bill.
State Rep. Rodney Creech, R-West Alexandria, stepped in after questions about how implicit bias training officers felt they should have, and one from former police officer and state Rep. Cecil Thomas, D-Cincinnati, in which he asked Finley is she had “ever been challenged as to whether you really want to do this job?”
“I don’t understand the questions, to be honest, I think they’re in very poor taste,” Creech said. “I think we’re trying to bring people into the industry, they know what they’re getting into.”
U.S. Air Force Reserve colonel and state Rep. Bernie Willis, R-Springfield, also testified in support of the bill, arguing that the age for military police and municipal police should match up, with such similarities in job responsibilities.
Willis said filtering out those that may not be ready for the job, no matter the age, is already done at the training stage, and expanding the pool of candidates would be beneficial.
“What I really believe, though, is we should open that aperture as wide as possible to get the largest number of recruits into each class, so that we can then decide which ones amongst them are best qualified and best able to perform that,” Willis told the Senate committee.
Concerns about an increase in police officers putting a strain on the Ohio Police and Fire Pension Fund is “a problem that I think we can solve,” Willis said.
SB 53 co-sponsor and chair of the Senate Government Oversight Committee, state Sen. Kristina Roegner, R-Hudson, said the pension system also isn’t worried about an influx of young officers.
During the committee meeting, Roegner said she’d been sent a letter from the pension fund, which said there is “no apparent negative impact on our pension fund by allowing a public safety officer to begin his or her career at the age of 18.”
Normal service retirement eligibility begins at age 52 with at least 25 years of service, according to the pension fund letter.
Read more at ohiocapitaljournal.com.