Fact-checking the need to reform education requirements for California cops
Proposed legislation would bolster academy training to include classes more focused on mental health, social services, psychology and communication
The California Police Chiefs Association (CPCA) and the Peace Officers Research Association of California (PORAC) recently held a joint press conference where they outlined their legislative proposals for the upcoming session.
Their proposals include the creation of a statewide task force with the goal “to recruit promising students from our K–14 system into careers in law enforcement” and the establishment of a California law enforcement education fund. The education fund would “expand access to higher education for qualified prospective officers who do not have the means to pursue a degree.”
A final proposal, and the subject of this narrative, is an expansion of the education and training requirements to receive a basic peace officer certification in California. This proposal was prefaced with the following standout statement from CPCA President Chief Nunez:
The 685 hours required by academy training is woefully inadequate given the breadth of duties and expectations placed on officers today,”
To bolster academy training, the proposed enhanced curriculum would include “classes that are more focused on mental health, social services, psychology, communication and more.” A change in the law linked to this proposal would require the California Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission to work with stakeholders within California’s university systems and elsewhere to determine the list of courses prospective officers would be required to complete.
In support of their proposed legislation, PORAC and CPCA provided three bullet points they say represent “years of research and academic studies” and “confirm a clear connection between education levels and police behaviors”:
- Officers with only high school educations were the subjects of 75% of all disciplinary actions.
- On average, officers with undergraduate degrees performed on par with officers who had 10 years of additional experience.
- A college degree significantly reduces the likelihood that officers will use force as their first option to gain compliance and educated officers tend to demonstrate greater levels of creativity and problem-solving skills.
Fact-checking: Police training hours
Before we discuss the literature on education and law enforcement, let’s put an end to the rhetoric comparing the hours of police academy training to other fields like cosmetology. There are several aspects of comparing these two training programs that can be misleading. For instance, the total number of cosmetology training hours includes on-the-job training or apprenticeships while comparisons with police academy training (e.g., Alameda County, California, 1,064 hours) ignore the additional 400‒600 hours of field training required before an officer performs solo patrol. However, this doesn’t mean current standards couldn't be improved on. Yet, before reform measures are introduced or implemented; shouldn’t there be research conducted on the preferred outcome measures produced by police academies in California and elsewhere?
Fact-checking: Education and police performance outcomes
The transition to a discussion on education and police performance metrics should begin with a reminder of how to read and understand scientific literature. First and foremost, an association between two things (i.e., correlation) does not mean that one caused the other (i.e., causation). Second, questions regarding whether the findings within a study were replicated with similar results should be answered? Third, is a study generalizable? For instance, can results from a medium-sized police department in Florida or Minnesota be applicable to officers in a large-sized police department in California? Even with these aspects in mind, what does the literature on education and policing really tell us?
As recent as 2018, researchers have referred to the relationship between education and police performance as mixed.  For example, there is research associating some college and a 4-year degree with significantly less use of physical force. [2-3] However, findings linking education to reductions in force and other disciplinary issues are not consistent. [4-5] More concerning could be recent research linking college-educated officers to increased low-level enforcement, increased searches and more arrests than their less-educated peers.  This finding runs contradictory to some reform efforts intending to reduce police encounters or enforcement.
I reached out to Paul Taylor, Professor of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado and asked his opinion on the influence of education on police performance. Dr. Taylor agreed the research was mixed and added this might change if there was a police education requirement like the nursing profession. Taylor went on to say, “A person with a BA in political science is likely to perform nursing tasks very similar to a person with a high school diploma, however a person with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing is likely to out-perform both.” Taylor stated he believed a “bachelor of science in policing” might provide similar results.
Evidence-based reform: An opinion
PORAC and CPCA should be commended for their proactive approach toward enhancing law enforcement. Policing as an entity is under enormous pressure to reform and a proactive approach is certainly recommended. However, I have been and continue to be concerned with the large amount of time and money spent implementing questionable reform measures that have no established record of success in changing officer behaviors.  So where do we go from here?
Borrowing a page from researchers, law enforcement stakeholders may benefit from taking an incremental and evaluative approach. It would be highly beneficial to look at current police academy and advanced officer training methods to determine their effectiveness. For instance, researchers conducted one of the only detailed evaluations of police academy training in the nation.  While limited in scope, they found shortfalls in the ability of academies to develop proficiency in specific skills. In turn, they made several recommendations that could be implemented and tested in California academies.
Additionally, significant evidence-based training mechanisms are already in place that should be considered. The Washington State Criminal Justice Training Program is currently providing several novel training methods meant to enhance officer resilience and decision-making. Additionally, the T3 Training system from Polis Solutions is an evidence-based program intended to enhance officers' social interaction skills and decision-making. The point is that we really do not have significant knowledge of what training and education methods work toward changing police officer behavior or performance outcomes. Therefore, it seems more reasonable to test an evidence-based platform and determine if it meets our needs before creating more legislation on questionable reform measures.
Be safe. Be vigilant!
1. Rosenfeld R, Johnson TL, Wright R. Are College-Educated Police Officers Different? A Study of Stops, Searches, and Arrests. Criminal Justice Policy Review, December 19, 2018.
2. Paoline EA, Terrill W. Police Education, Experience, and the Use of Force. Criminal Justice and Behavior, February 1, 2007
3. Rydberg J, Terrill W. The Effect of Higher Education on Police Behavior. Police Quarterly, January 3, 2010
4. Bruns DL, Bruns JL. Assessing the Worth of the College Degree on Self-perceived Police Performance. Journal of Criminal Justice Education, Jun 24, 2014
5. Wetherington CD. Law Enforcement Formal Academic Educational Hiring Requirements and Deputy Sheriff Disciplinary Issues. Walden University, 2018.
6. Engel RS, McManus HD, Isaza GT. Moving beyond “Best Practice”: Experiences in Police Reform and a Call for Evidence to Reduce Officer-Involved Shootings. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, February 13, 2020.
7. Neill J, et al. Police Academy Training, Performance, and Learning. Behavior Analysis in Practice, 2018, 12:1.