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June 15, 2009
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Jim Guffey Rising Through the Ranks
with Jim Guffey

The value of continuing education for police officers

In my first article, Rising through the ranks, I said that one of the important steps for success in this field is education. It occurs to me that I should fully explain just how important this step is.

First — ignoring the discussion on promotions for a minute, although you’ll see that continuing education can be the difference-maker there — every officer should realize that we are one traffic stop, one domestic, one bar fight, one drug raid away from becoming disabled or worse. So, not only do we want an education that helps with law enforcement, but we should also plan an education that can support us if the unfortunate happens.

With that in mind, when I talk about education, I’m talking about achieving what I call “multiple objectives with one move.” So let’s look at some of the good moves and some of the mistakes that can be made that will hinder your success.

We’ll assume that anyone reading this has at least an Associate’s degree since that seems to be the standard anymore. If you don’t, just apply these ideas toward the completion of an Associate’s degree.

First Principle: If you have an Associate’s degree in Criminology, don’t get your Bachelor’s degree in the same field.

Here’s the reason: you become something of a “one trick pony.” Unfortunately, I found this out much too late — my hope here is to help you not make that same mistake.

You really only have selling power in the field of law enforcement and nowhere else. The better move is to take your associates degree in Criminology then find an alternative course of study that gives you a Bachelor’s degree in some field other than criminology. Shop around at different colleges and find who will give you the best deal in transferring your Associate degree credits. Remember that in this day and age, it is a sellers market and you are the seller. You are selling your attendance to a college and, in return, they make money in tuition. So don’t be shy. Find the college that gives you the best trade. The most optimal outcome you’re looking for is 60 credits to transfer so that you’ll enter as a junior.

This first principle achieves the multiple objectives idea this way. If you stay in law enforcement you have an Associates degree in one discipline and a Bachelor’s degree in another. This gives you great value when going for promotions. However, if you leave law enforcement, or have to leave it, you have a better chance of finding employment in the private sector. So with one move you achieve multiple objectives.

Second Principle: Treat electives like gold

Reason: Electives can give you a great deal of flexibility during your career. Once again, I found this one out the hard way.

Years ago — when I first got into law enforcement — I applied to the Attorney General’s Office in Pennsylvania for a white collar crime unit. The gentleman who interviewed me told me that if I had six credits in accounting he would’ve hired me. My entire career would have been completely different.

That interview showed me that electives, if done right, can be mini “job-grabbers.” So if you’ve got four or five elective spots when you’re going for your degree, think ahead. Maybe use a couple for accounting or computers or whatever you think will aid you in career. This could put in the position of saying to a promotion board something like, “Yes, I have an Associates degree in Criminology and a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, or whatever discipline you studied. However, I’ve also taken accounting and computer courses so doing budgets, payroll, and manpower allocation plans should be easy for me.” Get the idea?

Third Principle: There are some courses you should take no matter what degree you are pursuing.

Reason: I’ve listed below a few courses that I used consistently during my 26 years in law enforcement. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I can say from experience that they were helpful. They enabled me to get a jump on other officers and let me shine when others didn’t. So, here they are:

Abnormal Psychology — this course is a must. What I was taught in this class enabled me to read people constantly and it gave me a huge edge when dealing with anyone I came in contact with.

Persuasion — I took this course as an after-thought one semester and I’m glad I did. I used this all the time and was able to use the principles taught to get people to do what I wanted them to do and they thought it was their idea.

Deductive Logic — This type of course helps you in thinking in a clear and logical manner while others are thinking in a scattered manner. The whole course was nothing more than a series of word problems that could be either true or false. The principles taught here helped in making plans, organizing my work day and, most importantly, helped in criminal investigation.

So, there’s my take on the education aspect when preparing for your career. It is by no means the final word on the subject; just some observations and ideas that I developed based on my own experiences. If you can think of better alternatives, good for you. Just remember that whatever you do, you’re doing for the “long haul.” By that I mean a 20 year career and then your second life after retirement.  Choose wisely and good luck.


About the author

After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh, Jim Guffey began his Law Enforcement career in 1977 with the Pennsylvania Capitol Police. In 1980 was hired by the Ross Township Police Department. He remained there until January 1, 2002. During that time he worked as a plain-clothes detective, on the traffic division, and was promoted on 1996 to Lieutenant. He remained the Administrative Lieutenant until his retirement. Not satisfied with retirement, he became the Chief of Police in Blairsville Borough in August 2003 and remained there until July 2004.





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