Tuesday, November 24, 2015

"You're Studying What?" : Higher Education and Policing

"You have a degree? Good! YOU can do all the paperwork Nerd!" These exact words were directed at me when my fellow officers learned I had a college degree. It was my first introduction into how cops saw the value of higher education in traditional policing. 

  • Have attitudes about higher education and policing changed? 
  • Is there a role for higher education in policing?
  • If so, what is this role?

There are long standing disparities in the value of education in policing.  Often the debate is condensed to the immediate return on the lessons learned in the field versus the classroom. Which location provides the more practicable, usable information?

Experienced field trained officers, sans degrees, are proud of the knowledge they have acquired through real life experience, often learning hard lessons through the risk of paying for the knowledge in scars and blood.

Classroom education provides opportunity to hone, practice, develop communication skills, often challenging in our modern environment in which technological assistance is often a critical tool in everyday communication, which is not always accessible, or available in the field.

Daily, I implore my students that a diploma guarantees no greater chance of success; it is what they do with the opportunity provided within the learning framework of the classroom.  In other words, anyone can be a warm body in a seat. What are you doing to get your body out of that seat and learn?

The classroom can provide a forum for the lessons learned from years of field experience, provided for new officers to be aware, on the lookout, vigilant, better prepared to seize advantage from those lessons in their own experience.

Critical thinking practiced today will be the policing decisions of tomorrow. Classroom, classically trained officers have a strong theoretical basis in the traditions and philosophical underpinning of the history and policies of the profession.

Research on the benefits on education offer numerous findings on effective problem solving, communication, and overall aptitude skill sets.  A diploma may not synonymous with earning an education, but the debate about formal higher education’s role in policing is not going away.




 This debate has been going on for decades and the push for officers to have degrees seems to come up again when there is a perceived crisis in the profession as there is now. The implication suggests that if cops were "smarter" (book smarter I assume), there would be less use of force issues.

This has not been the case in my personal  experience. I have never referred back to my undergraduate and graduate degrees before deciding if I should use force to defend others and myself.  Instead, I used my hundreds of hours of training and experience as the basis for these split-second decisions. 

As any cop will tell you, they have met the best of the best police officers who didn’t have a shred of formal education. As in all walks of life, there are highly educated individuals who have limited "street smarts."

However, today's policing is not all about chasing people around and arresting them. There is a tremendous amount of critical thinking involved and tons of administrative duties. An officer’s detailed reports may be read by thousands of people, from lawyers, judges, media etc. Also, it takes communication skills to interview witnesses, victims and suspects.  These writing and communication skills are a vital part of the job.  Years of writing research papers and giving college presentations could help the police officer be prepared for this aspect of the job.

Can’t these skills be taught through academy and field training and through time on the job? The honest answer is “Yes.” So, is someone who spent two or more years studying something in a classroom automatically a better cop? The short answer: No, not necessarily. On the other hand, the fresh, innovative, ideas from a young officer who may have studied various non-policing subjects as part of their degree can keep the profession fertile and offer non-traditional law enforcement viewpoints.  

Also, there is a benefit to going outside your comfort zone and learning about subjects unrelated to the field you will be working in and meeting others with different viewpoints. A formal education, allows one to see a different perspective on life than just a police officer perspective. This can be valuable in the profession, because the community you will be interacting with during your duties comes from all walks of life and backgrounds. 

Like it or not, in this competitive job market, the college degree is becoming the new high school diploma.  It has become the baseline for even entry-level jobs. Additionally, more and more police agencies are requiring at least a two-year degree as an employment requirement. In today's world, I would advise any young person interested in the profession to get their degree if possible. 

To summarize, I don't believe a college degree automatically translates to a better cop. I do believe it can add balance to the officer's view of the world, help policing as far as its professional image, and may be required to even be hired much less advance within an agency. 

Despite what the future of policing will call for education-wise, I hope we remember, right now, there are tremendous cops without the "piece of paper" that do incredible, professional, work every day.


We look forward to the exchange of ideas on this popular topic.

1 comment:

  1. Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future and renders the present inaccessible. - Maya Angelo

    When you hear the word PREJUDICE or BIAS, what do you think? If you're law enforcement, you probably conjured up an image of roll-call training on the topic of Bias-Based Policing or the new catch phrase Legitimate Policing.

    Did you think about the prejudice towards officers who attended college? Probably not.

    Let's begin with a quick review about prejudice.

    "Prejudice is an unjustified or incorrect attitude (usually negative) towards an individual based solely on the individual’s membership of a social group."

    If you study it further, you'll learn that prejudice is an adverse part of social cognition. You know "social cognition." It's how you mentally organize information that you process every day. Typically, a person will pay closer attention to information that coincides with their beliefs and values. When you deliberately screen out information that doesn't match up with your belief system, you fall victim to developing prejudice.

    With that quick psychology 101 review, let's get back to prejudice and college. Like Michelle, I too had been a victim of prejudice during my rookie training. As a college grad, I was expected to write without grammatical errors. There was sarcasm about me "knowing it all," and on a career "fast track" to becoming a "fed."

    After almost twenty years in law enforcement, I see three common prejudiced themes towards an officer holding a college degree.

    First, college graduates are book smart and not street smart.

    "Ya gotta have street smarts kid."

    There's a prejudice that college graduates lack common sense which makes them horrible police officers. For reasons I could never understand, sans degree officers forgot that "cop street smarts" comes from experience. A majority of officers developed street smarts from day-to-day contact with victims, witnesses and suspects. Like any knowledge, you learn through exposure and not genetics.

    Second, college graduates are Ernest Hemingway incarnate.

    "Hey Joe! Look at this mess of a report...it was written by that college kid. Ha! So much for college."

    There's a prejudice that college graduates are expert writers. Every police report is supposed to be Pulitzer. Nope. Writing is a skill in itself. As a person who double majored in the Business School and Liberal Arts, my Business School colleagues weren't very skilled in writing. Often my Business professors would commend my essays compared to what they typically saw. I wasn't a gifted writer; my Liberal Arts professors deserve all the credit for that skill. Writing police reports is the same way. It's takes a skilled writer to instruct young officers on how to write a report. A college degree is not a predictor for excellent writing.

    The final prejudice is that smart people don't resort to violence. This false belief is one driving force behind reformists encouraging agencies to hire more officers with college degrees. If only it was that simple. Instead of looking at the root of neighborhood and/or cultural violence, it's easier to place fault upon law enforcement for an event ending in a shooting or other UOF encounter. I'm not absolving LEO for having some officers that need to be pushed into a different occupation, but most LEO would happily prefer peaceful resolutions to conflict. A college degree doesn't predicate whether or not LEO will use force; a resisting citizen determines the type of response from an officer.

    In conclusion, there's a prejudice in law enforcement circles when meeting an officer with a college degree. The performance expectations are higher than those without a degree. Degree or not, those expectations are honorable and a standard everyone should strive to achieve - hunger for reading - excellent writers - peace makers.


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