Omaha Police Capt. Adam Kyle's spring semester in 2010 started on a Tuesday, just like other students at Grace University.
Like other students in his Backgrounds and Cultures of the Bible class, Kyle had to buy three required books: one on biblical geography and two covering the people and cultures of the Middle East of 2,000 years ago.
Like the other students, Kyle, who is working to earn a master's degree in Christian ministries, was set to spend a semester learning more about the cultural context of the Bible.
But at least one thing set Kyle apart from the rest of his peers: His tuition was paid by city taxpayers.
It hasn't always been possible for Omaha police officers to take college courses on the city government dime.
But after a handful of legal decisions, Omaha's tuition policy for police officers has grown over the past four years to become the most permissive in city government. Officers now can be reimbursed for any class at any university — whether the money's in the city budget or whether the course even relates to their job.
The city will cover up to about $600 in tuition for one course a semester, an amount tied to tuition rates at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
For the officers going back to school, it's more than just a way to build a résumé. Police officers receive pay bumps if they hold advanced degrees. An associate degree pays an extra $23 every two weeks; a bachelor's, $54; a master's or doctorate, $66.
The policy is still new, and officials say officers are just now starting to take advantage of it.
While the Omaha police union says the policy creates a well-rounded, well-educated police force, the issue might become a point of contention in the next round of contract negotiations.
City records show that the tuition reimbursement has cost a total of about $55,000 for the past two years combined.
Extra pay currently costs the city $500,000 a year, though most degrees were earned without the city's tuition benefit. As more officers get advanced degrees through the program, some expect the new, more open policy will drive up costs.
“You get to the point that it's going to build upon itself,” Assistant City Attorney Bernard in den Bosch said.
The World-Herald obtained tuition requests and approvals in the period since the policy was enacted and found that officers generally have taken classes related to law enforcement: terrorism, drugs and crime, public administration.
Some more general classes, such as U.S. history, fit requirements for a criminal justice degree.
But some courses have only a loose connection with the job of a police officer. The city's form asks how a course relates to the employee's job or career development. One officer said an English class would help him write better reports, affidavits and search warrants. A Native American history course, meanwhile, would help teach about other religions that could be encountered on the job.
One officer signed up for an acting class. He said it helped him communicate with people on the street and in interviews and interrogations.
For years, Omaha police and any other city employees worked under more restrictive tuition reimbursement rules.
The city allowed for tuition reimbursement as long as there was money in the budget and a manager approved the course, in den Bosch said.
Practically speaking, though, that never happened. City payroll administrator Deb Sander confirmed that not one officer was reimbursed for tuition expenses for at least five years leading up to the department's policy overhaul in 2010.
The first big change to the policy was forced by the state's labor court.
The Nebraska Commission of Industrial Relations uses cities similar to Omaha — in this case Cincinnati; Denver; Fort Worth, Texas; Oklahoma City; Wichita, Kan.; St. Paul, Minn.; and Tulsa, Okla. — and looks for prevalent practices.
Either a union or the city can take a case to the commission. When the commission considers a case, it reviews a contract's entire range of benefits. Even if the original dispute was about vacation policies, the court will look to other cities to rule on Omaha's pay scales, sick time, prescription drug coverage or uniform allowances.
The court found that four of the cities — Cincinnati, Denver, Fort Worth and Oklahoma City — paid officers in some way to take college classes, and it ordered Omaha to follow suit.
The commission didn't consider all the details of those cities' tuition reimbursement policies.
Cincinnati, for instance, has put its reimbursement program on hold for a few years because of budget cuts. Oklahoma City has a more generous policy than Omaha, offering up to $1,250 per semester for police officers and firefighters' tuition and fees in any course.
The commission gave little guidance about what Omaha's policy should include.
“There weren't any rules about what it was or how much,” in den Bosch said. “We just had to have it.”
Omaha officials initially fashioned the new policy after the previous one. All the parts about management approval were eliminated, though the city maintained language saying the classes had to be germane to the job.
But even that has been taken off the books as a result of Capt. Kyle's case.
In his original request for reimbursement, Kyle said the Bible course would assist him in counseling subordinates, teach “bigger picture practices” and shape him into a disciplined and competent leader.
“It guides me in the moral and ethical decisions I make for myself and the people I work for,” Kyle wrote.
His request was initially approved on the grounds that it would promote spirituality and assist in counseling for subordinates and citizens.
But the deputy chiefs reversed that approval, and then-Chief Alex Hayes decided the course didn't merit reimbursement.
Kyle, who declined to comment for this article, took his grievance to the police union.
The union took the case to arbitration.
To decide the case, the arbitrator looked to the police contract, which explains the policy in one sentence: “The City will provide tuition reimbursement for college classes up to two semesters a year at the per semester cost of three credit hours at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.”
The contract places no limits on degrees and no limits on classes. And so, the arbitrator ruled, there was no basis for denying Kyle's claim.
John Wells, president of the Omaha police union, said any college class should be covered. College courses of all kinds result in well-rounded people, he said.
“It benefits the department to have an educated force, period,” he said. “That's almost a no-brainer. How can you deny it just because it's a religious degree? How can you differentiate between a philosophy degree and a business degree? It's a hair-splitting exercise.”
Moreover, Wells said, officers earn extra pay regardless of what type of degree they have, and some promotions require a degree. If the city intended to support only law enforcement-related classes, Wells argued, those policies wouldn't be so open.
City Councilman Chris Jerram, a member of the council's labor negotiations committee, said the issue will be on the table when the police contract is renegotiated. That contract expires at the end of the year.
“It's a good policy question to ask: What should we pay for, and why should taxpayers be reasonably expected to pay for it?” he said.
When the council got involved in the contract for police management, he said, it removed extra pay for advanced degrees. Since those degrees were required to even be a police manager, he said, the extra pay was duplicative.
Jerram said he'd want to hear the union's argument for keeping the more generous policy, but said the city should pay only for classes or degrees that are relevant to the job.
“It's something that warrants scrutiny, and possibly tightening the language of the contract,” Jerram said.
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