Jose Gutierrez, who's wanted to be a police officer since he was in the first grade, has been an active member of the Elgin Police Department's Explorer program for six years.
When the 20-year-old gets his associate degree from Elgin Community College, he'll be the perfect candidate to become a police officer in Elgin -- with the added bonus of adding diversity to the department, police officials said.
Current hiring criteria, however, won't allow him to qualify until he has a bachelor's degree, and the city's Board of Fire and Police Commissioners isn't inclined to change the rules.
Deputy Police Chief Bill Wolf said he spoke with commissioners at their Feb. 6 meeting about allowing graduates of the Explorer program to qualify for hiring with an associate degree or 60 credit hours.
Elgin is among a minority of police departments that require a bachelor's, he added.
"We have some really good kids in the Explorer program that have a lot of experience and know how the Elgin Police Department works," Wolf said. "If we hire them, they would start out with a significant advantage over someone who started out cold."
The three commissioners rejected the notion, although they didn't take a formal vote, Wolf said.
"The direction I was given was, 'Don't even try,' " Wolf said."I'm disappointed that they disagree. At same time, we have a system in place, and I respect the system that's there."
"I can't discuss that, that's a private matter," Board Chairwoman Mary Camacho said. "I can't discuss that without the other commissioners," she added, and hung up the phone.
Commissioners Jacqueline Scott and Norasing Kethdy could not be reached for comment.
Elgin Fire Department Chief John Fahy, who attended the meeting with Wolf and supports the proposed changes, said commissioners said that would amount to lowering standards.
"It was met with pretty strong resistance," he said.
The fire department is in the process of setting up its own Explorer program, possibly within the next 90 days, Fahy said.
Commissioners also indicated they might be amenable to a second proposal, allowing Explorer graduates extra points in the hiring process for having completed a minimum of two years along with 200 hours of volunteer work, Wolf said.
Police hiring rules allow candidates with three years of military or police experience to qualify with 60 credit hours.
The Explorer program, geared toward those 14 to 21, requires weekly meetings, training on various law enforcement topics, and 10 hours a month of community service, said Elgin Police Lt. Jeff Adam, Explorer Post 1445's adviser.
Easing hiring restrictions for Explorer graduates would broaden the pool of candidates, as 70 percent of its 65 current members -- half of them women -- are Hispanic, along with some black and Asian members, Adam said.
Also, many are the first in their families to go to college and face financial obstacles to do so, Adam said.
"(Changing the rules) is a great way to get qualified applicants that are from the Elgin area. We really would love to hire more minorities," he said.
Wolf agreed. "One of our goals as a police department is to have a police department that mirrors our community," he said.
About 81 percent of Elgin's 181 sworn officers in Elgin are white, while 20 officers are Hispanic, 11 are black, and 3 are Asian, according to 2013 data from the department.
By comparison, among the city of Elgin's 110,000 or so residents, 43 percent Hispanic and 42 percent white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Gutierrez, of Elgin, has been an Explorer since he was 15 and hopes to graduate from ECC in spring 2015. He also works part-time as a parking control officer in Elgin.
"He would be perfect (as a future candidate)," Adam said.
College has been a financial burden and getting a bachelor's will be even harder, Gutierrez said.
The Explorer program has shown him what it means to be a police officer, Gutierrez said.
"It's not just what you see on TV. It's more dealing with people rather than just going out and carrying a gun and trying to stop the bad guys," he said. "It's more about prevention than fighting crime."
The Elgin City Council ultimately sets all hiring policy, Mayor David Kaptain said.
Council members have asked police and fire officials to make a formal recommendation to the city council at a future meeting about changing hiring requirements for Explorers. Kaptain said he's in favor of that.