State your case: How young is too young to be a police officer?

California has raised the age of hire for law enforcement from 18 to 21. Our columnists debate whether age is an effective measure of a candidate's maturity

In late September, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 89, which raises the hiring age for police officers from 18 to 21 and establishes certain higher education requirements for employment. But is age an effective measure of a candidate's suitability for hire? Our experts debate this issue. Share your thoughts in the comment box 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.

Joel Shults: For those of us who must write about current events in law enforcement, reading about California's police reforms is a painful professional responsibility. Compare it to covering a natural disaster. One surprise to me was a bill that Governor Newsom signed that raised the age of hire for law enforcement from 18 to 21. I was aware that some jurisdictions allow police hiring at 18, but didn't know California was one of them. Even the Highway Patrol allowed hire at 20, but I'm presuming that the calculations were so that a cadet would be 21 at the end of training.

When I was a bright young man eaten up with the idea of wanting to be a cop, I found few opportunities before I reached my 21st birthday. An Army National Guard recruiter solved my problem by letting me know I could be an MP right now and signed me up! By the time I was 21 I had that military training and a 2-year college degree and before I reached 22, a shiny new badge for my first civilian police patrol position. 

After a Police1 article about a 2020 California proposal to raise the minimum age to 25, a survey of Police1 readers showed that nearly 30% of respondents agreed with the 25-year requirement. The majority were just fine with 21, and only 6% said 18 is acceptable. Even though I was a young'n when I started, I think I had some background that fewer of today's generation have.

Now before you start accusing me of being an old fart who walked five miles to school in knee-deep snow uphill both ways, it was a different era. For one thing, I grew up in a rural area where responsibilities were clear and self-discipline was necessary. Aside from possibly too much TV, I was not owned by any electronic devices. My relationships were personal, not virtual. I learned how to have conversations with adults. 

I do think we misinterpret the studies that seem to show that the human brain doesn't develop until the mid-20s. That's been a license for way too much extension of adolescence. But the reason all those neural connections are lacking is that the body and brain need to have a variety of learning experiences to develop. I think that is what is often lacking in today's young people. That is not a universal indictment on the coming generation at all, but anecdotal observations make this a concern. Getting life experience behind the badge is great, but maybe getting life experience as a civilian first is wiser. I think there is a good case for raising the age to become a police officer.

Jim Dudley: Maybe we need a Gen-Zer to join this debate to give their perspective on maturity levels today.  You and I are from the same Boomer generation and I agree with you, those were different times. I was living on my own at 18, attending community college and working full-time to support myself. As you recalled, I was too busy to do too many irresponsible things at the time. I did, however, have an interest in police work. I took a “Youth and the Law” class in my senior year in high school, joined the explorers, became a sheriff’s cadet and took an 832 Penal Code class to be certified as a reserve. I majored in Administration of Justice and was hired as a police officer before my 22nd birthday. I did just fine.

I understand the reasoning in waiting to hire individuals until they are 21, for a variety of reasons, including requirements to going into adult-only environments, like those with alcohol licensing or entertainment-licensed venues. Still, some rural areas in need of staffing meet personnel gaps by using civilian positions or semi-sworn positions under the age of 21. This new California bill will hurt those communities. For those asking to raise the age of applicants to age 25, that is just arbitrary. What other job or career restricts entry to those under the age 25?

Assessments can determine the maturity level of the LE applicant candidate. Of course, there are 30-year old candidates who may not rate with the desired maturity level, but a number of 18-21-year-old applicants may come through with high maturity levels. Allow science to determine maturity levels of individuals, rather than eliminating by age.

It is but one aspect of the job to consider. If the applicant sufficiently meets the demands and maturity levels required, why hamper and stall their careers at this important juncture of their lives? Will driving for a ride share service or delivering pizzas garner them maturity and seasoning at age 25?

Joel Shults: Jim, you make some good arguments, particularly about the apparent arbitrariness of the cutoffs. Perhaps more than the calendar numbers, better assessment of maturity levels should be included in police recruit testing.

Science does tell us that the part of the brain that controls impulses and makes goal-oriented plans is the part that is still developing through the decade of the 20s. That's the scary part when giving young men and women life and death decision-making authority. A more European model of training that takes place over a period of years rather than months might also address this issue of brain immaturity. There is a decent body of research showing the value of a college education in terms of reduced use of force and complaints on officers. Perhaps increasing academic requirements would be a de facto way to raise the age of recruits. 

Jim Dudley: We can agree on that point, Joel. My criminal justice students graduate at 20-22 on average. Still, what would make even more sense would be a vocational training program of sorts, maybe as early as high school, for students to learn about public safety from police, fire, EMS, public health, mental health service, dispatch, emergency management and other curriculum areas. A multi-disciplinary view may give some a better idea of which field would suit them. This would serve as an apprenticeship program, force multiplier and make recruitment and retention more efficient. 

Ultimately, we should choose those candidates who are the best fit and well-suited based on their individual maturity level and not by age alone. 

Police1 readers respond: What should the age requirement be to become a cop?

  • I think it should be 21 years old. Many of those who are 18-19 years old and just leaving high school haven't had the same experiences as someone who may be just a few years older. I am currently a university law enforcement officer, and while there may be a handful of 18-19-year-olds who are mature enough, the majority are not. The 18-20 year range seems to be the prime time for young adults to figure out who they are and who they want to be, and if that is truthfully working in law enforcement, a few years won't change anything. In the meantime, they can do explorers or work in other capacities (dispatch, civilian, community service officer, etc.). I started with my department at 22 and am now 26 with the same department. If I would have started at 18/19, I don't think I would have been successful in both figuring out who I am/what I wanted and fulfilling a career that demands responsibility.

  • I believe some life experience is valuable in law enforcement, If you are unable to empathize with at least some of the people you have to deal with, you will be handicapped. I started late in life, at 42, however, in a state where you cannot go into an establishment that sells liquor unless you are over 21, it would be absolutely irresponsible to hire younger than that. Even at 21, agencies need to use their oral boards to weed out people who are not mature enough to handle the responsibility. If you haven't grown out of your high school locker room antics and childishness, the interviewers need to be able to recognize that and when an FTO suggests that someone is just not cut from the right cloth, we need to listen to them. We certainly can't afford to take any warm body just to fill positions. I think 21 is just fine, unless you have a drinking age in your state of 18, then I think you should evaluate the individual. I agree there are still some parents who raise responsible children into responsible adults at an early age. I work with some officers who are thirty-something and I am not confident in their maturity levels.

  • Minimum 21. It also depends on each person's level of maturity. I started my LE career at 35. I know I would not have been able to handle it any earlier than my late 20s.

  • It's not the physical age of the new officer, it's the level of maturity and problem-solving skills that is crucial. I started my career at age 35 in the early '90s and maturity was a sought-after trait. Street smarts are another needed quality. I have to think that the lack of the above traits is the root cause of LODDs in the past 10 years. We should look at an apprentice program as a valid solution. Training should be years, not months. The age of 18 for the military works because a soldier rarely works alone and for the most part a soldier meets a defined set of circumstances. A cop has no idea what the day will bring. They need to be trained to handle anything that comes their way and think their way through things they have never seen. We need to do better with the new generation of LEOs.

  • The minimum hiring age should be 21 or higher for one simple reason, the brain does not fully mature until 25 years of age. Given the nature of police work, the more mature the brain is, the better an officer can do the job.

  • I have been a Texas cop since 1972 (I was 23), so I have seen a lot of "sand run through the hourglass." Texas lowered the age to 18 in the 70s, and Houston PD put three academy classes together, one week apart, right off the bat. Due to the "law of unintended consequences," some of the cadets were 18 when they graduated, and because of their age, they couldn't purchase their own pistol ammunition. Texas raised the age back to 21, and there it sits. I think 21 is just fine.

  • 21 for hire is a magic number in my opinion BUT 18-21 years old should be a "trial by fire" so to speak. I started off as a police explorer at 15 years old. I went through various hands-on experiences, training and mentoring by veteran coppers and had their "blessing" when hired on at 18 years old as a park ranger. The city department I worked with did it right, in my opinion, with an unofficial training/indoctrination program that spanned over several years. This helped weed out individuals who were not necessarily cut out/built for the type of work. Also, definitely this was a different time then; responsibility, discipline and respect are something not everyone has these days, unfortunately.  
  • 25 years of age. I got hired at 20 years and 4 months and there was no way I was mature enough to handle that much responsibility. The fact that I didn’t get fired for stupid behavior is more a function of dumb luck than anything else.
  • 18-21 are formative years for most. Just getting the taste of adulthood. Policing is too complex for the average person of that age. I agree that age does not necessarily constitute readiness either, so saying that 25 is right doesn’t work. I think there should be a 2-year program through college or trade schools for prospective officers. Upon graduation, they would have an associate's degree and be eligible for hiring. That gives time for proper instruction in all areas of policing. Just my opinion.
  • I'm a retired city sergeant with 21 years on SERT. When I first started my career in the early '90s, recruits had better work ethics, more respect for rank and seniority and were willing to earn rank, positions within the department and didn't complain when as a rookie they got some of the less glamorous assignments. Today, we are correcting these kids to address their supervisors by their rank, we are fielding questions on why they can't have the assignments that a ten-year veteran officer has and the lack of motivation is frustrating. Fresh out of college at 22 with zero life experience does not qualify an individual as a mature prospect ready to do this job. 21 should be the bare minimum, especially in states that have age restrictions on firearm possession. I'd prefer slightly older who's been in the workforce if they don't have a military background. Some of the best recruits are young vets. Aged 18 and right out of high school is a recipe for disaster.
  • I think it should be left alone, 18-19 is perfectly fine. This is just another case of the government fixing something that is not broken I started at 19 years old with no problems I am now 40 years old with over 20 years on the job. I haven't seen anything to support this change and believe it will do nothing but stifle recruitment.
  • This is a difficult subject. In my experience with today's youth (21 to 30) on several different types of calls for service have absolutely no social skills outside of a social media page or forum, and minimal critical thinking abilities and knowledge on how to deal with confrontation. It is difficult to "train or teach" these skills but we do develop methods to teach them to those who are able to think outside of their box. We have hired a few between the ages of 21 and 25 and thanks to good trainers along with the "rookie's" ability to accept and utilize constructive criticism, they successfully completed the program and are on their own in the street. It varies by the individual and it is necessary to teach the ones that aren't quite mature enough how to handle life experiences as they are introduced to them in this profession.
  • Speaking from experience I was hired at 19, hit the streets at 20, and had a long and successful career. I was ready, but not everyone is the same. I believe they should open police academies up for anyone 18 or over and leave it to agencies to make decisions on a case-by-case basis. 
  • All of you commenting on being hired at 18 and 19 years old are from a completely different generation than the kids entering the workforce today.  The fact of the matter is that kids are raised differently today than they were when officers with 25 years of experience were raised. We had a work ethic, and we knew how to interact with people in person and not through a computer or phone. We had problem-solving skills because our parents didn't rescue us from every predicament we got ourselves in. However, I do agree that each person is different. There are still good kids out there who have been raised "old school" and have values and a work ethic. If I were king for a day, age 21 is the lowest I would go for hiring someone into this profession as a full-time officer/deputy. At our agency, someone at 21 needs to have cadet, reserve, or military experience. Without any of those things, 21 is still a long shot for a new hire at our agency.

What do you think? Share your opinions in the box below.

What do you think should be the minimum hiring age for police officers and why?

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