Why cops should pursue higher education

The more you rise in the academic ranks, the more likely you are to see that it’s not just about you

At some point in your career, you may have thought, “I should go back to school to get that extra 5 percent educational incentive,” or “I need to get my degree so I can get that promotion,” or “I need to get the degree to boost my retirement fund.” But have you actually acted on those ideas?

Now is the time to seize on the notion and take action, and not just because it’s good for your career. Earning a degree is what’s best for your organization, your community and your profession.

For those aspiring to management or executive positions (captain, major, assistant chief/sheriff, deputy chief/sheriff or even chief or sheriff), a degree may or not be required, but it will certainly reduce the competition. Consider the complexity of today’s policing – managing millions of dollars in budgets, training academies, supplies, equipment, forensic labs, personnel, legal and mandated requirements, court decisions and policing very diverse communities. Performing the basic police mission at the same time is a daunting role for anyone.

Despite years of research that appears to confirm a connection between education levels and police behavior and multiple efforts to establish a college degree as an entry-level requirement for police work, most departments require only a high school degree or GED for new recruits.

Myriad Benefits
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.

About the author

Rick’s experience in law enforcement started with the San Diego Police Department. He was a SWAT sergeant, FTO Supervisor, a community relations officer, and head of the Crime Prevention Unit. He then served as a Sgt. and Lt. with two university police departments. Rick accepted a position as a criminal justice professor and coordinator of a community college POST police academy.  While also serving as an interim Chief of Police, he was successful in initiating the transformation of a college security force to eventually an armed, POST police force. He also served a Reserve Lieutenant for the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, working in Backgrounds & Training. As a professor, he has taught criminal justice courses at the community college level, and police administration, management, and emergency planning at the graduate level.  

As a published author, his research has been focused on leadership development issues in public safety. His article on “Succession Planning” was published by Police Chief Magazine in June of 2006. As a lecturer, he has spoken to the Ohio Chiefs of Police Training Conference, the International Congress on Assessment Methods conference, and (as a Certified DACUM Instructor) for the International DACUM (Designing a Curriculum) conference.  As a grant writer, he initiated, directed and implemented a web-site for the California State Community College Chancellor’s Office to attract potential candidates including underrepresented populations into police, fire, corrections and supporting roles. That website is www.publicsafetyinfo.org.  Rick is also certified as a trainer for the Public Safety Leadership & Ethics course under a similar California State Chancellor’s grant.

He is the Director of KSA, Ltd. and hosts workshops to teach supervision and management skill-building to police, fire and correctional personnel to get them ready for promotion.  As a former rater for promotional assessment centers and the author of “Preparing for Assessment Centers in Public Safety,” he has developed relevant hands-on curriculum that include a series of behavior-based exercises designed to simulate real-world scenarios and expectations of a supervisor, using the assessment center methods. His web-site: www.assessmentcenter.org contains numerous testimonies of those who have completed his course and gone onto achieve top scores/rankings for promotion: for law enforcement: to Sergeant, Lieutenant, Captain, Deputy Chief and Chief; for fire: to Captain, Battalion Chief and Division Chief; and for federal agents: to GS-13-15 supervisory and management positions. 

He has a Master’s Degree in Public Administration and he has done post-graduate work with the Union Institute and University researching succession planning in public safety.  As a writer, he has published several articles and textbooks including: Preparing for Assessment Centers in Public Safety, Criminal Law, Criminal Investigations, and Crime Scene Investigations.  He is generous in sharing his knowledge and experience and enjoys helping others learn supervisory and leadership skills to effect change and build a coalition as the next generation of ethical decision-makers.  

Contact Rick Michelson

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  2. Police Jobs and Careers
  3. Patrol Issues
  4. Use of Force
  5. Leadership

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