COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – State representatives on Wednesday considered a measure that would allow Ohioans to join the police force at an earlier age.
The bill, which passed out of the Ohio Senate last month, lowers the minimum hiring age for police officers from 21 to 18 years old in an effort to expand the pool of candidates as police and sheriff’s departments battle a nationwide shortage, according to the bill’s co-sponsors Sens. Michele Reynolds (R-Canal Winchester) and Kristina Roegner (R-Hudson).
“Ohio is no stranger to this crisis,” Roegner said. “This change would permit all communities to appoint police officers at age 18, freeing up three additional years of eligible candidates.”
If enacted, Ohio would join at least 14 other states in permitting 18-year-olds to join the police force, according to the National Conference of State Legislature.
Some municipalities in Ohio are already hiring applicants younger than 21, thanks to “home rule” privileges, Roegner said. Aspiring officers with the Columbus Division of Police must be at least 20 to apply, and Akron Police Department hires begin at 20.5 years old, according to the divisions’ respective bylaws.
“Why can’t we let Ohio’s sheriff and police departments do the same?” Roegner said.
Senate Bill 53 is not mandatory; it does not require Ohio’s police departments to hire applicants as early as 18. But not all law enforcement officials – even those facing a workforce shortage – are on board with the change.
Gahanna Division of Police Chief Jeff Spence, who is actively hiring new recruits, said expanding eligibility to younger Ohioans may not be the solution, as it could conflict with state law governing firearm possession.
“The bill would task people in that 18 to 21-year-old age group with enforcing laws of mere possession, which by law they can’t possess,” Spence told NBC4 last month. “So, it creates a number of legal conflicts that I don’t think were foreseen.”
A veteran of the Cincinnati Police Department, Sen. Cecil Thomas (D-Cincinnati) agreed. Equipping an 18-year-old “fresh out of high school” with a gun is cause for concern, he said.
The state’s Fraternal Order of Police, which represents about 23,000 police officers across the state, also opposes the measure, according to its director of government affairs Mike Weinman. In an April letter to lawmakers, he said 18-year-olds’ brains aren’t fully developed, nor do they have the life experiences needed to make difficult choices on the job.
“We do not believe a teenager can be a police officer,” Weinman wrote. “We fear these officers, who can’t purchase a beer, will be left to fend for themselves to handle challenging calls that could expose them to second-guessing and trauma.”
But Reynolds said Senate Bill 53 doesn’t force police departments to hire every 18-year-old who fills out an application. It’s still up to the individual chiefs of police to make the call if an applicant is ready for the job.
Opening the door to younger applicants eager to join the force, she added, will also ensure there are enough officers to keep Ohioans safe.
“They (the applicants) know the people, they grew up there, they’re already receiving by their community and they want to become a law enforcement officer – why would we hold them back?” she said.
Senate Bill 53, which passed the Senate in a 25-8 vote largely split down party lines, awaits additional consideration in the House Homeland Security committee.