Recently I have found myself in discussion with lawmakers regarding the importance of higher education for police officers. I thought it was a settled question but I learned that isn’t. Currently, in Michigan one can become a police officer with a high school education if one is hired and sent to the police academy by the hiring department–only three departments retain police academies: State Police, Department of Natural Resources and Detroit. All of the other academies are part of the state universities or community colleges located around the state. A person can pay their own way through a police academy “pre service” but the administrative rules of the state require that a person have at least 2 years of college to be admitted to one of these programs. Most police agencies hire from that pool of academy graduates because it saves them the cost of sending a recruit through an academy which involves pay and benefits for a person that may or may not turn out to be a quality employee. The 2 year rule is based on well researched facts and outcome studies.
Every national commission that studied and made recommended improvements to police services(usually after significant national turmoil) has recommended that police officers have higher education including the recent 21st Century Policing Task Force.
As a chief of long tenure, I know the differences I see between officers who have 2 and 4 years of college. We prefer to hire candidates with bachelor’s degrees but we will hire officers with 2 years of college. None with only high school diplomas. We pay for officers to achieve 4 year degrees in criminal justice or closely related fields because we know the benefits. When I started as a police officer, I was required to have a college degree because I was female (that kind of logic was permissible in those days) but I worked alongside some officers who had GEDs and some with college degrees. There was a clear difference apparent even to me as a rookie officer–in the way the two groups approached the job.
Part of the 2010 audit of our department by the International Association of City Managers counted the number of bachelor degree officers and advanced degree officers because they also know that higher education impacts the quality of officers. At that time we had all 15 command officers and detectives with bachelor’s degrees and 20 of 39 patrol officers with 4 year degrees. It is about the same today with several holding master’s degrees.
A recent article in an on line magazine, Police One.com, written by Rick Michelson , a career San Diego police officer and police chief, talks about this very issue:
In one study of disciplinary cases against Florida officers, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) wrote that, “Officers with only high school educations were the subjects of 75 percent of all disciplinary actions. Officers with four-year degrees accounted for 11 percent of such actions.” Another study held that officers with undergraduate degrees performed on par with officers who had 10 years of additional experience. Nationally, only about 1 percent of police departments require a four-year degree.
A 2014 study by Jason Rydberg and Dr. William Terrill at Michigan State University provides evidence that a college degree significantly reduces the likelihood that officers will use force as their first option to gain compliance. The study also discovered evidence of educated officers demonstrating greater levels of creativity and problem-solving skills. The researchers concluded that a higher education may positively impact officers’ abilities and performance and listed many potential benefits, including:
- Better skilled in independent decision-making and problem-solving
- Fewer on-the-job injuries and assaults
- More proficient in technology
- Less likely to be involved in unethical behavior
- Less likely to use force as the first response
- Less use of sick time (work ethic and seeing the big picture)
- Greater acceptance of minorities (diversity and cultural awareness)
- Decrease in dogmatism, authoritarianism, rigidity and conservatism
- Improved communication skills (oral and written)
- Better adapted to retirement and second-career opportunities
In another study by Rebecca Paynich (2009) college-educated police officers were more likely to:
- Better understand policing and the criminal justice system
- Better comprehend civil rights issues from multiple perspectives
- Adapt better to organizational change
- Have fewer administrative and personnel problems
According to the Police Association for College Education (PACE), other benefits of higher education in policing include:
- Fewer citizen complaints
- Promotion of higher aspirations
- Enhancement of minority recruitment
It’s time we became serious about higher education for law enforcement. While nothing will replace the experience and street smarts of veteran officers, perhaps we should really listen to such voices as Sir Robert Peel (1829), August Vollmer (1916), the Wickersham Commission (1931,) the President‘s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice (1967), the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence (1969), the American Bar Association on Standards for Criminal Justice (1972) and the Police Foundation‘s Advisory Commission on Higher Education for Police Officers (1978), all of which said essentially said the same thing: The path to true professionalism is through education.
The attitude of “Well, that’s the way we’ve always done it” or “We just can’t afford it,” or “We just can’t find qualified applicants,” doesn’t cut it anymore. When considering your long-term strategies, give serious thought to changing your educational requirements.