Time to get serious about police education
U.S. policymakers may want to take note of the approaches adopted by England, Wales and Australia to achieve nationally integrated and intentional police education
By Gary Cordner, Ian Pepper and Nicole L. Asquith
There hasn’t been a serious national discussion about police education across the USA for over 40 years, since the National Advisory Commission on Higher Education for Police Officers reported in the 1970s. Today, while there is lots of talk about making policing more scientific and more evidence-based, the focus seems to be on the production of knowledge, not on getting it more widely understood and applied across the policing profession. There is an emphasis on police research and evaluation, but not a corresponding emphasis on police education.
By police education, we mainly refer to learning and mastery of the body of knowledge within the profession. This is expected of professionals. We now have some 50 years of scientific studies of policing, but it is not consistently taught in any serious way in colleges, universities, police academies, or police professional development programs. Consequently, we have hundreds of thousands of members of a profession who are completely unfamiliar with the scientific knowledge base of their own profession.
To be fair, there is a lot of police training in the U.S. In many police academies, training includes some of what can be called education. But the dosage is very limited, considering all the skills, practices, procedures and policies that have to be covered and mastered in 21 weeks (the average program duration).
U.S. policymakers may want to take note of the approaches adopted across England, Wales and Australia that illustrate more robust, nationally integrated and intentional police education and training.
England and Wales
Across the 43 local police services in England and Wales, new police constable recruits complete professionally focused education and training programs.
The College of Policing (CoP), the professional body for everyone in policing, has responsibility for managing and maintaining the National Policing Curriculum (NPC) to which this degree-level learning is aligned. The CoP quality assesses and then grants licenses to police forces and their partner higher education providers to deliver the recruit programs.
The CoP-licensed programs for new recruits blend knowledge, understanding and skills with work-based learning. The three-year Police Constable Degree Apprenticeship (PCDA) is for recruits who have not previously studied for an honors (university) degree. The two-year Degree Holder Entry Programme (DHEP) is for recruits who already have university degrees. In both cases, new recruits are employed by a police force from their first day, attested (sworn in) as police constables and complete a funded program taught jointly by academics, police force trainers, and workplace tutors.
Study takes place both in the classroom and on the frontline of policing, with all learning mapped to the NPC. Learning includes the study of response, community and roads policing, intelligence, conducting investigations, evidence-based policing, problem-solving, decision-making, digital policing, etc.
Classroom study is applied to practice in the workplace over the duration of the program, with learners supported to evidence and complete first independent patrol status by the end of year one, and then Full Operational Competence as police constables. Assessments throughout are varied including assignments, reflections, professional discussions, presentations, etc., and in the case of the PCDA, an evidence-based research project and End Point Assessment.
Learners who complete the PCDA during their three years of probation as new constables are awarded an honors degree, whereas those completing the DHEP during their two years’ probation as a new constable are awarded a graduate diploma.
Policing in Australia is organized at the state and territory level. The Australian and New Zealand Policing Advisory Agency has worked with Australian policing organizations over the last 10 years to develop the Police Practice Domains of entry-level constables that can be used by police organizations to benchmark their recruit training and education programs. The adoption of national benchmarks facilitates the type of consistency that assists in lateral transfers between police organizations.
As with other federated nations, Australian states and territories have created a variety of approaches to police training and education, with most adopting a model of in-house training lasting between 30 and 36 weeks. This training is usually under the self-regulatory model of a Registered Training Organization (RTO), with Probationary Constables graduating with either a Certificate IV or Certificate V in the Australian Technical and Further Education (TAFE) system.
The New South Wales Police Force and Tasmania Police (TasPol) are outliers to this RTO model, with both partnering with higher education institutions – Charles Sturt University for the former and the University of Tasmania for the latter. In both jurisdictions, an associate degree is embedded into the recruit training and probationary constable programs.
The Tasmania model is unique in Australia and consists of graduated degree pathways from probationary constable to inspector. During recruit training and their probationary year, TasPol officers complete a co-designed and co-delivered two-year associate degree in social sciences (policing practices), which adopts authentic assessment that facilitates job-ready graduates. In turn, this program is embedded in a bachelor's degree, which is completed as part of the promotional pathway to sergeant, which, in turn, is embedded in a professional honors degree for promotion to inspector.
A ray of light
In the U.S., California is currently taking steps that may re-ignite more serious attention toward police education. Legislation passed in 2021  requires the state’s community college system to develop a “modern policing degree program” that includes courses in “psychology, communications, history, ethnic studies, law, and those determined to develop necessary critical thinking skills and emotional intelligence.” Further, once implemented in 2023 or later, minimum education standards for police employment will be “the modern policing degree program and bachelor’s degree in the discipline of their choosing.”
It remains to be seen whether California’s “modern policing degree program” will really meet the standard of a professional policing degree, drawing deeply from the scientific body of knowledge about policing. How it will integrate with police training is also unclear at this point. One hopes that it will be stitched together in a way that emulates the systems already in place across England and Wales, and Australia.
Granted that the U.S. is far bigger, with its policing system being more complex and fragmented, but other states could follow California’s lead. In the current era of police reform, it might even be possible to imagine national standards and incentives. At the very least, a serious national discussion is long overdue.
1. The sponsor of California’s original legislation referenced a 2017 study supported by the National Policing Institute and led by Christie Gardiner, Ph.D., at the California State University Fullerton.
About the authors
Gary Cordner is the academic director of the Education & Training Section for the Baltimore Police Department.
Ian Pepper is a professor at the International Centre for Policing and Security at the University of South Wales.
Nicole L. Asquith is a professor and chair for Policing and Emergency Management and director of the Tasmanian Institute of Law Enforcement Studies at the University of Tasmania.