State your case: Should prospective cops be required to have college degrees?
“We may have a false choice to make here: college or no college.”
In November 2020, two California police organizations proposed legislation that would require prospective officers to complete some college classes that the two groups said would target specific areas to help officers better relate to the community. A month later, Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles, introduced a proposal that would require anyone who wants to be a police officer in California to have a bachelor's degree or turn 25 before starting their career.
However, in March 2022 the Chicago Police Department announced it has dropped its college credit requirement for some candidates in an effort to boost recruiting numbers and New York City Mayor Adams is considering scrapping a city rule requiring NYPD officer applicants to have earned college credits.
Should college degrees be required to become a police officer?
Read our columnists' take on this issue and share your opinion below.
The ground rules: As in an actual debate, the pro and con sides are assigned randomly as an exercise in critical thinking and analyzing problems from different perspectives.
Our debaters: Jim Dudley, a 32-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department where he retired as deputy chief of the Patrol Bureau, and Chief Joel Shults, EdD, who retired as chief of police in Colorado.
Jim Dudley: If law enforcement wants to truly achieve the mantle of “profession” then requiring officers to have a higher education degree is essential.
To trace policing to its origins, we may recall brawn over brain as the most desirable trait sought by those desiring law and order. Over time, however, police officers have been tasked with being smart and efficient.
Today’s law enforcement professionals require the ability to read people, data, technology and forensics. An advanced understanding of social and psychological influences is needed to be an expert in policing. Higher education better prepares officers for what they are being asked to do in law enforcement today.
Joel Shults: I marched into my police career with a two-year degree. I progressed over time to a four-year degree in criminal justice, then a master's in administration, and finally a doctorate in education. Along the way, I've taught in several different college environments, two police academies, and in both in-person and remote learning environments, all while remaining an active certified peace officer in both patrol and administrative positions.
In the course of my career, I've met practitioners in the field who range from adequate to brilliant in their craft. Seldom was the defining difference whether they held a college degree or not.
I am obviously an advocate of education and training. The question is, what kind of skills are gained in our academic classrooms? As a professor, I know that learning comes from a combination of exposure to facts, active engagement with the knowledge to which we are exposed, the social interaction that cements our engagement with both the facts and how they relate to us collectively and culturally, engaging with facts and skills using multiple senses, and finding relevance to knowledge in order to employ it. We find gaps in those principles in all of our current ways of becoming police officers. There are tremendous inadequacies in our academy training, field training and in-classroom training.
The solution to those gaps is not increasing college classes, but examining the real-world needs of today's police officers working in an incredibly complex milieu of demands and expectations and forging a regimen of knowledge, skills and aptitudes to equip our officers. The letters on our resume seldom reflect those demands.
Jim Dudley: Joel, you and I have very similar backgrounds (yet we always seem to disagree in this column). I too went into policing as a 21-year-old with a two-year degree. I earned my bachelor’s in criminal justice and then my master’s degree in criminology much later in my career. Today, I teach four criminal justice classes with 135 students currently, all of them are criminal justice majors. I am lucky to be teaching upper-division students, yet they still have many misconceptions of police, police work and the justice system. Many of my former students have gone on to be police officers, probation and parole officers, counselors, attorneys, or other careers in the justice field.
To a person, they say they obtained a better understanding of the profession from their criminal justice studies and it helped them from the police academy through to being in their permanent position. They often remark that the benefits of the college degree in the field helped them understand constitutional policing, ethics and problem solving, as well as myth-busting the urban legends they thought were true of policing.
Once in the profession, cops are asked to manage other cops and civilians, crunch data, comprehend forensics, learn and understand legal concepts, manage budgets, and conduct myriad other duties as they promote or advance to roles in patrol, analytics and administration.
I honestly believe college students learn better writing skills that will help them in their careers, as well as critical thinking and social skills. It seems that the best cops are those who can talk with people from a variety of perspectives, races, genders, ethnicities and beliefs. Of course, you can gain those skills working in a hardware store or fast-food joint, but evidence-based knowledge is a great foundation. Speaking of foundation, the National Police Foundation and others have looked at the effect of college on cops and although not definitive, most of the studies have said that better decision-making regarding use of force always seems to have a positive pattern.
Joel Shults: We may have a false choice to make here: college or no college. There may be a better way than the college plus academy track.
There are studies that indicate degreed officers have better outcomes in some areas, but that may be less from the academics and more from other things like a desire to make the time until they are age-eligible for entry into policing a productive season of life, the trait of delayed gratification, association with a diverse population, independence from their support system, and so on.
There is no knowledge wasted in law enforcement and other modes of learning and experience have great value. True reform in police training will come when we develop a career training path that doesn't immerse young police officers in college debt and indoctrination in the increasingly left-wing ideology in university settings.
Considerable changes need to be made in the function and financing of law enforcement training to create a well-balanced curriculum for the future. There is little consistency in criminal justice degree programs and great merit in non-criminal justice areas of study. That makes it apparent to me that the value of a college degree lies less in the academics and more in a variety of other life skills that could be absorbed in police academies that are longer and more comprehensive.
We have the most college-educated cadre of police officers in history right now and it hasn't solved the problems that have been identified or alleged within recent history. Until society and the profession re-imagine what we really want from our police officers, a college education is not likely to resolve the ultimate questions of our profession.
Jim Dudley: We are on track with our goals of professionalism in policing. In a recent Police1 survey of over 3,000 respondents, more than 85% had an associate degree, bachelor's, master’s, or above.
Today’s cops are smarter than previous generations. We demand degrees at most agencies when considering candidates for promotion. They learn academics, of course, but more importantly, they learn the social skills necessary to deal with so many segments of society. I may be overly optimistic, but I’m encouraged by the numbers of those seeking law enforcement careers who see a college education as another worthwhile endeavor on the way toward their goal.
Joel Shults: If the great majority of officers already have college, then the problems that the profession faces are not those that will be solved by a college education. Perhaps the problems that the reformers and critics claim either don't exist, or we need a new training paradigm in response to them.
Police1 readers respond
- What other recognized professions in the employment sector lack a formal education requirement? Consider the following professions where a college degree is required: Teacher, lawyer, nurse, social worker, CPA, FBI, commissioned military officer and doctor.
In our world, we give a badge, gun and serious responsibility to a 21-year-old kid with a high school diploma or GED, add three or four months of academy training to their depth of experience, and send them out to the community. Then, we hope for the best! It's simply ridiculous and law enforcement has been resistant to the idea of the college requirement for decades. That's not good enough anymore. It's not about the level of intellect but the idea of developing a university manner and the ability to think critically, to "play gracefully with ideas" as Oscar Wilde put it, and to be exposed to different perspectives.
I like the concept of incorporating police basic training with four-year academic programs as is done in more progressive countries. Prospective police candidates should start out in one of several national academies around the country and then move on at the end of the program to state-level training, which would prepare them for work on the county or local level. This would be a police science degree program, which I think would go a long way toward changing the public view of law enforcement as unlettered and uncultured, bigoted and jackbooted. We have much work to do to shed this image.
— Lt. Brian Gillaspie
- Absolutely. I recommend a minimum of an associate's degree. I am experiencing my 52nd year in law enforcement. I am now and have been a chief of police for more than 26 years. I have been a student in some of the nation's top police academies (Illinois State Police, Cook County Sheriff's and Chicago Police Academy). I vividly recall my first years as a police officer who only had a high-school diploma. It is a wonder I made five years of service. The issue: 1. Being a learner – a person who studies his practice and seeks to improve on it. 2. Poor reading skills. 3. Falling victim to my own perceptions rather than the rules of law in the legal system. 4. Lack of student discipline – that showed up in my early report writing, and evidentiary documentation. Today I have a master's and doctorate degree. Once I was motivated to return to school, many of my career tasks improved. I was able to interpret and understand written instructions better and provide a better representation of myself through my written product. I am currently chief of police at a college and I strongly encourage anyone reading to obtain an advanced degree.
Not only should this be considered as a nation, but it should also be part of the national funding to improve policing. Master's degrees should also be nationally funded for leadership positions regardless of the size of the agency. Further specialized training in Fair Labor Standards Act, Risk Management Policy, Compliance and related areas should be funded. Political leadership should be legally charged for interfering with policing practices as well. Today small policing agencies, which are the majority, suffer uncompensated hours, outside of FLSA and Risk Management, jeopardizing professionals, their families, and the public. Elected officials continue to force further services without budgeting properly. Age and education along with continued training and education are far greater a benefit to the professional and public than many of the existing political trends failing to improve policing.
I completed a 25-year career as an officer in a large agency (over 700 sworn). I had prior military experience as an Army MP, which gave me an advantage in the Academy and on the street. I think that either prior military experience or at least an associate's degree would be beneficial. However, I found that a lot of the college grads thought too much sometimes and ended up hurt because they lacked assertiveness.
I personally do not have a degree and feel that it’s unnecessary to become a police officer. It would be better to have a more street-smart officer. I also believe that hiring men and women who are in their mid-to-late 20s would also be more beneficial to a department.
I worked in law enforcement for 36.5 years and retired as a captain in an agency of about 100 personnel. I had 4 years of college but no degree as I left college when I was called by the agency that hired me. My basic academy was 7 weeks and occurred 9 months after I was hired. I worked alongside a group of wonderful police officers, some with degrees and some with only a high school education. I also worked with some real jerks, some with degrees and some with only a high school education. The biggest differentiation in these two groups was the degree of common sense that they possessed, Pretty hard to teach that in any setting or to screen for it. I have been retired for over 11 years and things have changed, but I do know the difficulties agencies are having in hiring new officers. When I tested, there were several hundred applicants for a couple of open positions. I took a test for a large agency that had over 2,000 applicants. Now, my smaller agency recently had about 40 applicants and the large agency gets in the low hundreds. Imposing a requirement of a college degree would shrink that hiring pool further. It also seems to me that in the quest to diversify departments, a college requirement may hurt that effort also.
As a lieutenant (now retired after 36 years of service), I found an education to be beneficial in knowing the laws and procedures regarding law enforcement. But it doesn’t compare to hands-on training/learning. One of my favorite sayings was, “I’ll take one officer with common sense over three geniuses any day!” Education and experience are important, but in the field with only seconds to make a decision, experience will win out.
Society now expects far more than basic academy training. A more involved system where the prospective police officer is paid to attend an education and training program where a bachelor's degree along with physical training, mastery of a martial art and firearms expertise is obtained would seem to fit society’s demands. The graduate would be at least 21, meeting any age requirement. The main issue is who will fund this system.
Prosecutors have B.S. degrees plus three years of law school. Criminal judges have that and usually more. These attorneys are using case reports and arrest and search warrant affidavits from officers and investigators to prosecute their cases. The defense attorneys are using these case reports and affidavits to defend their clients. The officers must be able to write clear and accurate reports and speak and testify convincingly in court. It's expected by the prosecutors and judges. A college education may be necessary for acquiring these skills. Maybe incorporate police basic training into the college curriculum.
I have over 124 college credit hours, but no degree. I have 22 years in law enforcement, with thousands of arrests, yet I can count complaints against me on one hand. I've worked with officers with masters and advanced degrees, some of who are the most incompetent and unsafe officers I have seen. I've also trained an officer with a college degree who was unable to read or write at a level of an eighth-grader. A degree doesn't mean an officer is any "smarter" or better equipped to make the split-second decisions often required in law enforcement. Instead, a better screening process and more mental testing at the outset of an officer's career would be more beneficial. A master's degree won't prevent an immature officer from making the mental mistakes that can cost him/her a career, or the department a lawsuit, or in a worst-case scenario, an innocent person their life. After two decades spent working as a detective, narc and street cop, I switched to university policing. After seeing how many college-educated students act, I would question the assumption that having a degree automatically makes an officer more mature and better capable at this job.
Degree? No. But it may depend on the area. Take for instance my city. It is very urban, violent and in this climate, anti-police. We have a severe staffing issue. We need candidates from the area, including those from the same violent neighborhoods that want to be part of the solution and not the problem. Requiring degrees may exclude many fine candidates that otherwise would be able to relate or help in some of these communities. Twenty years of experience has shown me this: a degree didn't make a difference in many areas such as leadership, common sense, integrity and attitude toward hard work and challenges. The better officers have military experience. They have many attributes needed for the setting where I am. I personally HAVE a degree and no military, but I also worked other jobs prior to law enforcement.
A college degree doesn't help a person who needs more "street smarts" rather than a degree in anything like culinary, etc. Also if agencies are already having hiring issues, good luck adding another hurdle. A higher age limit sounds like a good idea, so the person has some life experience.
No, college is no harder than getting a high school diploma. All you have to do is show up and regurgitate enough information to pass your tests and you earn a degree. I spent three years in college for criminal justice, until I got my letter for the police academy. The only thing that transferred over from those three years was being able to study for tests. None of the classes from college prepared me for "being the police." The full-time loss prevention job I worked all three years to pay for college gave me more skills than college. I love how people throw out how lawyers and doctors have more schooling than cops. We've all dealt with lawyers who were incompetent morons and doctors kill more than 250,000 people a year through malpractice. You know the old joke: What do you call the guy who graduates last from medical/law school? Doctor/lawyer.
At least a 2-year degree. This will help with the maturity of the person hired.
Not at all. I know plenty of people who do not have a college degree and have more common sense than those with one. How will a degree make you a better police officer? To those who think it will, go on a ride-along and see what it takes. The amount of pay officers receive for the job they do, it does not take a college degree, it takes a special person with dedication.
No. I have worked with officers who had degrees and some who did not. Unless you knew this, you couldn't really tell the difference. It was the experience, not the degree. While we look for diversity in our departments (or we should be), requiring a degree will, more than likely, eliminate a lot of individuals in marginalized communities, who just don't have the resources to go to college. Then there is the ridiculous cost of a college degree. Who wants to spend $200,000 for a college degree (on the low side) to get a $120,000 job? There are a lot of educated idiots.
I have read all the other responses posted. I don't think a degree is the whole answer but I do believe a broad education and life experiences/jobs/maturity/age help. I feel a year or more of college in the right topics would help and so would work in a PD as a volunteer, explorer, cadet reservist, or related field like a community service officer would help round someone out. I know we are VERY short-handed these days but as a rule, many folks under about 25 have little life experience and lack the good sense that we develop as we get older whether that is in a police-related job, other work and/or having some sort of schooling/experience after high school. It is not realistic to think our 21-year-old guys and gals can handle policing a public of all ages and backgrounds. More mature hires, and yes that might include some college in the mix, but not necessarily a degree right off, could be the answer.
Yes, in today's world of policing and the demands placed on officers, it has become necessary. Particularly, to better compete for promotions and special assignments.
No. A degree is not going to give someone street experience. I know officers with degrees who are worthless in the street and I would not trust my life with them. It takes a special person who is street smart and can make decisions in seconds and not a book smart person who will be analytical and get hurt or get someone hurt due to not having common sense and street smarts.
This article, originally published Dec 28, 2020, has been updated.