Otis Redmond wanted to return to college, but not if it meant getting student loans.
The longtime Atlanta police officer enrolled at Georgia State University in the 1990s to finish what he started a decade earlier at another local university. But he bailed out after it got too expensive.
A college scholarship program for Atlanta police officers let Redmond return.
Using about $4,500 in scholarships, Redmond went back to school, finished his work toward a bachelor's degree in criminal justice and walked away without owing a dime in loans. He's one of 180 police officers to take advantage of the 2-year-old program, which is run by the Atlanta Police Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports the Police Department.
"Now I'm a college graduate, thanks to the Atlanta Police Foundation," said Redmond, a 20-year veteran who works as a police recruiter. "If it hadn't been for the APF, "I would have [postponed] going back to school, because I would have had to pay more money."
Since it began, the Scholarship Reimbursement Program has handed out $254,433 in scholarships, said Dave Wilkinson, president of the Police Foundation.
Though many do, officers don't have to get a degree in criminal justice. To be eligible, they must attend an accredited university, maintain a 3.0 grade point average, have been with the Police Department for two years and agree to stay for three more, Wilkinson said.
Police and college is a marriage that began in the 1980s, and the union gets stronger with each passing year, said Peter Fenton, a criminal justice professor at Kennesaw State University.
When Fenton became a Cobb County police officer in 1980, officers who had college degrees were rare.
But an increasing number of rookies have them, and more veteran officers are returning to school to get degrees, too.
"People are realizing that law enforcement today is different than before," Fenton said. "It really is more about being smart than it is about being tough."
Wilkinson is hoping that the Police Foundation's program will have a domino effect.
Officers who get better educations become better leaders and feel better about themselves, lifting the morale of the department, he said.
He also believes it will help retain officers. Only one person has left the department after getting scholarship money, Wilkinson said.
The program has become so popular among the Atlanta police force "that it's broke the bank," Wilkinson said.
This year, officers requested $182,000 in scholarship money, but the program had only budgeted for $120,000. So the Police Foundation increased the budget by nearly $15,000 to accommodate more of the requests.
"The officers love it," Wilkinson said. "It's something they can touch and feel. It's something that affects their pocketbooks."
Scholarship recipient B.C. Williams likes to tell people he's returning to college "after a 25-year spring break," he said.
The Atlanta police sergeant dropped out of Mississippi State University in the early 1980s when his father's heart problems worsened.
With a wife and two young kids, Williams went back to school in the fall 2006, intent on earning a bachelor's degree in criminal justice. He recently was moved onto the graveyard shift, so he attends five-hour classes twice a week before heading to work at 11 p.m.
"It's a sacrifice that I'm willing to make," he said. "I can sleep later."
Atlanta police Sgt. Rosa Quintana-Green is on track to earn a master's degree in criminal justice by next summer.
"It's going to feel real good," said Quintana-Green, who runs the department's Crime Stoppers program. "And I hope it'll make me a better supervisor."
Next up: getting her doctorate.
"I got the momentum now," she said. "I'm going to keep it going."