Officer Anthony Catania, of the Frankfort Police Department, became the first officer to hit the streets in Kentucky through the M-2-LE program. - PHOTO: Frankfort Police Department

Officer Anthony Catania, of the Frankfort Police Department, became the first officer to hit the streets in Kentucky through the M-2-LE program.

PHOTO: Frankfort Police Department

In Kentucky, police are turning to the military to find and recruit new officers through the Military to Law Enforcement (M-2-LE) program. The statewide program taps into the Department of Defense SkillBridge program that aids those leaving military service in finding civillian careers.

The M-2-LE program allows local law enforcement agencies in Kentucky to hire active service members within all branches of the U.S. military during their last 180 days of service. Upon being contracted by a law enforcement agency, the military member will continue to receive pay and benefits from the military while they undergo law enforcement training at the Department of Criminal Justice Training (DOCJT).

The new program was developed through the collaboration of The Kentucky Law Enforcement Council (KLEC), Kentucky Commission on Military Affairs (KCMA) and the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs (KDVA).

 “Across the nation, law enforcement agencies are struggling to hire and retain officers. I commend our state agencies for working together to create an attractive incentive for both our service members and police agencies focused on improving public safety throughout the commonwealth’s 120 diverse counties,” says Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear.

According to the governor’s office, Kentucky is the first state to utilize the SkillBridge program statewide to establish cooperative agreements between law enforcement agencies and all branches of the military. Also, it is a first for a state agency to act as the facilitator of marketing, support staff, accountability, and offer the program to all law enforcement agencies in the state.

Any police department or sheriff’s office could, on their own, join the SkillBridge program. However, that can be a daunting task with a lengthy application process if not properly guided. The difference in Kentucky is that the KLEC is actively seeking police departments and sheriff’s offices to join the M-2-LE program and then directly assisting with the application process.

Under the terms of the program, the military member wanting to work in law enforcement is required to agree to a three-year commitment with the agency following graduation from the academy. Likewise, there is a commitment from the department as well. A department hiring someone through the M-2-LE program agrees to pay a mandated minimum hourly rate to officers hired.

Departments across Kentucky are in varying stages of participating in M-2-LE. Some have filed applications to work with SkillBridge, others are already interviewing applicants, and one has already hired an officer.

Frankfort Police Department

Officer Anthony Catania, of the Frankfort Police Department, became the first officer to hit the streets in Kentucky through the M-2-LE program. The seven-year U.S. Army veteran graduated from DOCJT’s police academy basic training in April.

“It took a lot of stress off myself and my wife because I did not have to worry about whether I had a job lined up once I got out of the Army,” Catania, a dog handler while in the military, explains. “I could go straight into what I wanted to do and not have to worry about a transition period.”

The Frankfort Police Department was one of the earliest Kentucky departments to begin learning about SkillBridge through M-2-LE. Chief Dustin Bowman said work began under Chief Chuck Adams about a year or year-and-a-half ago. In the meantime, Adams retired and Bowman stepped up from captain of investigations to become the current chief. Back then, as now, Bowman was the one who did most of the recruiting and communications with the applicants.

He explains Frankfort became an early adopter of the M-2-LE program when the state was looking for local agencies to get their feet wet early with the program.

“There were a couple of agencies that they spoke to. We just happened to be the one that grabbed it and ran and took off with it,” Bowman says. “Being able to find another way to show, once again, our dedication to our men and women that served for us was the biggest advantage we saw.”

The chief says Frankfort has 57 officers on the roster now, with four in the academy or waiting to go, and two out for military deployment, but has open slots for six more. He estimates that about 10 of his 57 have military experience so other military veterans looking for a place to fit in can find a home in the Frankfort Police Department.

For the department, and in the larger sense the City of Frankfort as well, there can be sizeable financial advantages to hiring an officer through M-2-LE, Bowman points out.

“That’s one of the big things with SkillBridge, while that applicant is in the academy they're finishing up their duty status with the military. We basically have a spot that is free, free payroll until they graduate,” adds Bowman.

In Kentucky an officer will spend six to seven months in the academy, including downtime for holidays, the chief says. Given that half-year time when the military will foot the bills, rough per-officer cost savings can be easy to estimate.

“For us it would roughly estimate just in salary alone about $23,000 or $24,000, but then you figure in the saving from the fringe such as the insurance and stuff. So, it could save upwards of $40,000 to $50,000,” Bowman says. “I only get to see the numbers on salary. That's the big thing that helps me, HR takes care of the fringe side of it. But I think a new officer cost us close to $80,000 to $82,000 a year after fringe. So, you figure if somebody's in academy for six or seven months you’re saving half of that with every applicant.”

The state’s first M-2-LE hire, Catania, is now learning from a field training officer (FTO) and the chief call’s the Army veteran an “amazing officer.”

“He’s doing great, no complaints at all. Hiring him we knew we were getting somebody with discipline that he had learned in the military, somebody that had a strong work ethic. And he was exactly what we thought we had,” the chief explains.

Bowman works to interact and keep in touch with possible M-2-LE applicants, starting sometimes even before they reach the 18-month period where they prepare for transition to civilian life. Just in recent days, he has been in communication with three possible applicants.

“Big kudos to both the military and to DOCJT for creating a program to bridge some of the gap and help our servicemembers in being able to adapt and being able to have a smooth transition back to civilian life,” he says. “It's a great, excellent program. Truthfully for the veterans and for those in service, I hope more agencies jump on board with it.”

Frankfort’s Officer Anthony Catania, who served seven years in the U.S. Army, completed his police academy training in April and is now learning from a field training officer. - PHOTO: Frankfort Police Department

Frankfort’s Officer Anthony Catania, who served seven years in the U.S. Army, completed his police academy training in April and is now learning from a field training officer.

PHOTO: Frankfort Police Department

Erlanger Police Department

At the Erlanger Police Department, Lt. Kim Klare is hopeful her department will hire a transitioning member of the military early next year. Her department began participating in the M-2-LE program late in 2021, but it is a lengthy process.

“I first learned about the program when I went to a hiring process training back in late fall or early winter at the Department of Criminal Justice Training. They mentioned it and did a slight overview of the program. It was brand new at that time and Frankfort was kind of the test pilot agency,” says Klare.  “So, I immediately came back and spoke with our chief about it. I think it's a fantastic program.”

Klare was able to get the ball rolling for Erlanger through the help of state-level guidance.

“The Kentucky Law Enforcement Council office walked us through the process of getting us in contact with SkillBridge and setting up our MOU with them and becoming an approved partner once we filled out the application. When SkillBridge approves you as a partner, your agency goes live on the SkillBridge platform, which goes out nationally to all the active-duty military,” Klare explains.

So far, she has been in contact with about 10 different applicants who have reached out to her police department for consideration in the hiring process. Several visited the area for testing and interviews some months ago and although there were multiple good candidates, Klare must try to coordinate the department’s needs at the time in conjunction with the applicant’s military separation date. Currently, Erlanger is fully staffed. But Klare, and other recruiters using M-2-LE work on a longer timeframe.

“I have a candidate, after our interview process in the spring, that I've remained in contact with. Part of the SkillBridge program is working with and keeping up with your candidates’ date of separation from the military because they only become eligible at a certain timeframe,” Klare says.  “So that becomes a balance in making sure that your budget year meets up with when they are eligible to participate in the program. That candidate will be eligible around January or February which will put timing for us to make that something in a budget negotiation for next budget year.”

She is optimistic about hopes that M-2-LE will draw strong candidates to not only Erlanger but other communities large and small around the state as well.

“This is actually a readymade career for you to leave your training at the end of military active service. And then upon separation from active duty, you have a ready-made 20-plus year career in law enforcement,” says Klare. “I think law enforcement has always attracted prior military just because of the nature of the service and the dedication and the serving the communities and things like that. So, it seems like a natural step and this has been a great bridge to recruit and speak to those candidates.”

Covington Police Department

The Covington Police Department, a department with about 100 sworn officers currently, is still early in the M-2-LE process. Chief Robert Nader first learned of the program while attending in-service training at DOCJT.

“This is a great opportunity, especially in this time when policing in general nationwide is having trouble getting recruits, of hiring people that are already dedicated to service. In other words when they joined the military they knew they were joining something bigger than themselves, to help their fellow citizen and help their nation. So, we're like, wow, this is a great applicant pool, an applicant pool we usually tap,” Nader says.

For the department, the chief says it is great that they don’t have to provide payroll or benefits to the new recruits since the military will cover all of that while they are in the academy. Also, the veterans should feel at home in Covington since 28 of the department’s officers are former members of the military. As multiple agencies pursue these military candidates, Nader thinks his department has its advantages.

“If you want to be a busy active officer in an urban environment in Kentucky, I think we're one of the premier spots to pick. We have a lot of activity, I mean we're right across from Cincinnati, competitive pay, and I can promise you'll never be bored,” Nader says.

At the department, Capt. Matt Winship has taken the lead it the process to get Covington enrolled in SkillBridge through M-2-LE. He understands the amount of legwork involved.

“There are basically three hands or more involved with it. There's the city's hand, there's the military side, and of course there's the Department of Criminal Justice Training, and each has to offer something in order for things to continue,” Winship says. 

The applications, the memorandum, and all paperwork have been submitted to SkillBridge and the department has been in regular contact with he state-level liaison. But they have no clear answer on when they will actually become an authorized agency and go live on SkillBride. The process is not fast.

“It's been kind of a frustrating process because we run a pretty well-oiled machine here, as far as efficiencies go in police departments. Unfortunately, we haven't experienced that throughout this process elsewhere,” Winship says.

He also points out one part that can be challenging for some departments is finding ways to administer candidate tests and evaluations to people who may be deployed around the world and not available locally very easily.

“If you do get into this program, I don't expect any of it to be done instantly, it's going to be a year process,” suggests Nader. “I really think this is going to be a great program and I thank the state for bringing it up and creating it and approving it for our department and other departments in Kentucky. I think you'll see a lot of agencies as the word spreads in Kentucky do this.”