COLUMBIA CITY — The Columbia City Police Department gained five rookies May 21 after being sworn in at the City Council meeting.

Four of the five officers filled vacant positions on the department, and the fifth officer was hired in preparation of an upcoming retirement of a veteran officer.

With the new hires, the city now has 13 officers with five years of experience or less — a big change compared to about five years ago, when most of the CCPD’s officers had 15 years of experience or more.

Clerk-Treasurer Rosie Coyle swore in Jared Kelley, Nick Peppler, Caleb Wooldridge, Evan Myers and Michael Porter, alongside Chief Scott Leatherman.

In a time when hiring quality police officers can be difficult, Leatherman said the department was fortunate to have a batch of good candidates in this hiring process — which takes about 6 months in itself.

“We got lucky this time … we had so many good ones,” Leatherman said.

The chief indicated that applications are down 60-70% nationwide, which can be attributed to the country’s roaring economy and public opinion of the police industry as a whole.

The hiring process includes a physical test, written test, interviews and then approval by the pension board, as well as physical and psychological evaluations. Even after all of that, the officers have months of training, including months at the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy.

The new officers come from diverse backgrounds — an asset — according to Leatherman.

“That’s what we look for … we’re not just looking for certain skill sets. We work with a diverse population of people,” Leatherman said.

Myers, a Huntington native, was in the Air Force for 5 years and applied for the opening upon returning from the military. He served as a security policeman and has served in Africa. Myers comes with patrol experience on air bases.

Kelley is a Columbia City native and was most recently a confinement officer for the Whitley County Sheriff’s Department. He also serves the community as a volunteer firefighter.

Wooldridge is a Warsaw native, where he was a star football player and eventually went on to play as a linebacker for Anderson University. He graduated with a degree in criminal justice.

Porter grew up in the area and worked for a woodworking company before joining the department, and Peppler is a Columbia City High School graduate who wrestled for CCHS and in college. He had been working in construction in recent years.

With so many officers retiring in recent years, there are a lot of new faces, but new officers are learning from the foundation of the Columbia City Police Department.

“A lot of times I hear, ‘I don’t know any of these guys, I used to know everyone,’” Leatherman said.

The chief encourages residents to get to know the new officers, and has his department involved in community events, such as reading books to children at the schools and interacting with the public during downtown events.

Leatherman says it is important for officers of the CCPD to be honest and compassionate, to have integrity, and “to have empathy and compassion for the people we serve.”

The new officers are gaining experience with some of the veterans on the department — which can, at times, be overwhelming when there are so many at once.

“Some embrace it and want to pass things on to the next generation — others want to do their own thing,” Leatherman said.

Oftentimes, when a new officer joins the department, experienced officers can take turns in training. Now, with nearly as many new officers as experienced patrolmen, training everyone can be a challenge.

“It’s exciting, but there is a lot of training going on — it’s putting a lot on the other officers. I’ll be excited when these guys are trained,” Leatherman said. In addition to the five new officers, one other recent hire is still in the training process — leaving six who need to attend the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy before being fully trained.

Porter will leave for ILEA this month, and the others will go in groups throughout the next year. Though the state covers most of the expenses for the actual academy, the city still pays the tab for meals, ammunition and travel expenses. In addition, the new officers need new uniforms and equipment. In total, expenses near $5,000 per officer — a cost that is mitigated by the fact that the department has been short staffed since January.

Medical and psychological testing for all the officers was about $6,500, and uniforms are about $100 apiece. When each officer needs about four uniforms, the prices add up.

The City Council approved the moving of some police dollars from one fund to another to cover these expenses, moving nearly $20,000 that was appropriated for wages in 2019, from the vacant officer positions, to the equipment and travel/physicals funds. In addition, thanks to donations for the new police body cameras, the CCPD is able to purchase a new squad car to help the growing needs of the department.

The CCPD is also bringing new life to its communications department, which has a new dispatch center under construction. At last week’s meeting Leatherman indicated that furniture was delivered and is being installed for the center that is expected to be functional this summer — located across the hall from the current center in City Hall.