What's a degree worth? Law enforcement and education

The debate over whether or note officers should be college educated has been swirling around for decades and will not go away anytime soon

Almost anywhere one looks, law enforcement officers are bombarded with information encouraging them to earn a four-year college degree. The recurring themes are that the quality of policing will improve and officers will become better, more professional and, therefore, more apt to gain sought-after promotions should they complete a four-year degree.

However, individual officers should pursue a four-year degree for personal, not solely professional reasons. Departments contemplating a move towards a four-year applicant degree requirement should consider whether such a prerequisite reflects the community that they are sworn to protect and whether the requirement could decrease the applicant pool without significantly improving choices.

The idea of a college-educated police officer is not new. In 1967 the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice recommended in the report The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society that all officers have a four-year degree.

Measuring Police Performance
In 2006, Police Chief Magazine, a publication of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, ran a series of articles on the subject of education and police performance, several of which stressed the importance of hiring officers with college degrees.

The FBI’s National Academy magazine has run similar articles, one example as recent as the March / April 2011 publication. Popular police periodicals are larded with advertisements for educational programs encouraging officers to start the next step in their career.

Dr. Diana Bruns, now of Southeast Missouri State University, has noted (“Reflections on the One-Percent of Local Police Departments with Mandatory Four-Year Degree Requirements for New Hires”) that not all available studies support the idea that individuals with four-year degrees make better officers. However, she, along with many other criminal justice researchers, continue to support the idea.

As Dr. Bruns noted, the real problem remains that there is little agreement on what criteria should be used to measure police performance. In fact, significant disagreement exists on what determines professionalism. One group of researchers refer to this as “the criterion problem.”

Therefore, it may be difficult to conclude what, exactly, improves with better-educated officers. Do officer with four-year degrees really do a better job protecting the community?

For proponents it’s difficult to explain why a bachelor’s degree is critical to, say, a patrol officer on the pointy end of the spear whose time is spent matching a suspect’s actions with articulable probable cause, wresting a drunk to the ground or, for that matter, resolving neighbor disputes that don’t rise to the level of a criminal offense. Here, in the real world, experience weighs more heavily than education in determining survival and success.

Training Versus Education
The truth is, police work is primarily experiential. Today’s officers demand applicable training to keep them successful and many may not see educational alternatives in the same way. Dr. James Ness hinted at this when he wrote that “[e]ducation really never has seemed to be an important ingredient for police officers.” His comment echoes Dr. Bruns’ findings that some police chiefs contacted for her study believe that the law-enforcement culture is anti-education.

Training, which the law enforcement culture does embrace, allows an individual or group to meet known, measurable and observable standards linked to a specific task with the intent to improve performance: in essence, job skill formation. Education allows individuals to understand the context of the tasks and, eventually, modify their behavior in such a way that a task becomes merely one specific means to an end. If you don’t get the difference, ask yourself a question posed by Jay Cross, a bank performance expert: would you rather see your daughter in sex training or sex education?

Many young officers probably understand training. Their high school, which may now be more interested in having students pass standardized multiple-choice exams, has prepared them (with varying degrees of success) with the prerequisite memorization and organizational skills. But that same school may have been less successful in fostering abstract critical thinking abilities. Just tracking and understanding the ever-changing court decisions on constitutional rights has become an educational pursuit. Bridging the often wide and deep valley between training and education remains a dilemma for officers and departments alike.

Officers and departments should carefully consider all aspects of a four-year degree before jumping in with both feet. Though a four-year college degree may be appropriate for the Officers in Arlington, Texas or the Agents in Lakewood, Colorado, it may not be appropriate for every officer or department.

Look at the Ledger
Officers should weigh the considerable financial costs and likely opportunities for pay and promotion. The Project on Student Debt shows that students are leaving college with significantly higher financial debt and the future remains bleak. The real payoff may come later should an officer change career fields, seek leadership positions in the department, or after retirement when a degree could assist them in obtaining post-law enforcement employment.

Dr. Bruns’ study suggests that some departments that have had a four-year requirement in the past have backed away from the standard in part because such a criterion may limit the hiring pool. Other departments which “prefer” a four-year degree are willing to substitute experience.

The debate over whether or note officers should be college educated has been swirling around for decades and will not go away anytime soon. Officers and departments should recognize that an officer with a college degree may be nice to have, but the granting of a bachelor’s degree will not turn someone without a strong desire to enter law enforcement into a good officer. An individual’s motivation to become a police officer, coupled with some native talent, probably remain the most important variables.

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