McKenna Link has always admired police officers. But for a long time, she believed that her status as a 5-foot, 2-inch woman with a high-pitched voice kept her from seriously considering law enforcement as a viable career opportunity.

“It’s something that I completely wrote off, but it’s something that I always wanted to do if given the chance,” she said.

Link, at the urging of some female law enforcement acquaintances, last year decided to take that chance when she learned of a reserve peace officer training program operated though the State Center Police Department. Funded through a Future Ready Iowa Grant, the two three-month academies in 2021 provided more than 50 would-be officers with free training, lodging and, in some cases, child care to attend classes from across Iowa.

Jon Thomas, State Center police chief and lead instructor for the program, said reserve officers are a mainstay for many small Iowa police department who can’t afford to place enough full-time officers on the streets. The programs also serve as work-based learning opportunities for many people on the verge of considering a career in law enforcement.

“A lot of officers in Iowa started as reserve,” Thomas said. “It’s just a really good chance for people to kind of experience what they go through and figure out if they have a taste for it.”

Ultimately, Link decided she did. After a few months of training, she started work in December as a fulltime officer with the Iowa State University Police Department.

Reserve Academy graduate Samantha Ritchison took a similar path, spending several months as a reserve police officer in Laurens before joining the Humboldt Police Department as a fulltime officer in December.

“It makes a great difference,” Ritchison said of the training she received. “I will talk that program up any opportunity I get.”

Humboldt Police Chief Joel Sanders said reserve-trained officers are a valuable commodity for any department that’s navigating the current workforce environment. Candidates are in short supply, and staffing shortages sometime lead to delays in getting officers to the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy for the mandatory training that all fulltime officers must complete.

“If I can’t get you directly into the academy, the more training you have when you come to me the better,” Sanders said. “When you come to me as an applicant and you’ve been through that, you at least have scratched the surface of what it’s like to be a police officer….

 “If I hire you without reserve training, I’ve got to teach you how to shoot a firearm, how to do a traffic stop,” he said. With the training, “you’ve got a candidate that’s a little more aware of what’s going on.”

The funding provided to State Center to create the reserve officer training curriculum was one of dozens of grants that Future Ready Iowa has awarded over the past three years to support innovative work-based learning programs.

For more success stories, visit this link.

Click here to watch an IWD video about the State Center academy.