Do Police Officers Need a College Education?

Earlier on in the semester we discussed President Lyndon Johnson’s Kerner Commission of 1967. We studied the late 1960s period and the great political and social unrest that defined it. Racial tensions were skyrocketing, Vietnam War protests were raging and the community and police were greatly divided by mistrust, misinformation, and prejudice. While most of our analysis focused on what the Kerner Commission got wrong, I would like to focus this blog post on one aspect that I believe it got right.

President Lyndon Johnson identified that one theme that has remained throughout all of the reform movements is the importance of education in creating a better-prepared and more tolerant police officer. As a result of the Johnson’s Kerner Commission, the law Enforcement Assistance Administration released federal funding for better training and education of police officers. While it was not mandatory, the Commission highly recommended that all police officers have at least a two-year college degree.

Today our nation is still asking the same question: Is college education necessary for police officers? Given the results of studies, I have reached the conclusion that a post-secondary education in addition to in-service training focused on critical topics are needed to produce the most well-equipped officers for the job.

In 2010, Jason Ryberg of Michigan State University wrote an article entitled “The Effect of Higher Education on Police Behavior.” Ryberg examined the effect of officer education on three key decision-making points (arrest, search, and use of force) by using observational data from two medium-sized cities. The results indicated that higher education has little to no influence over the probability of an arrest or search occurring in a police-suspect encounter. College education does, however, substantially reduce the likelihood of force occurring. It is argued that there is less police discretion in making arrests or conducting searches, since both are governed by law and court decisions but the use-of-force is based on discretionary decisions made on a case-by-case basis by the police officer.

Based on a 2006 report by USA Today, the International Association of Chiefs of Police found in an analysis of disciplinary cases against Florida cops from 1997 to 2002 that officers with only high-school diplomas were the subjects of 75 percent of all disciplinary actions. Officers with four-year degrees accounted for 11 percent of such actions. There is validity in the correlation between education and problem-solving abilities. Officers with a longer education history are more likely to be faster thinkers with the ability to resolve problems without relying on the use of force.

Another popular argument suggests that the desirable characteristics of a college-educated officer, namely being involved in fewer use-of-force events and possessing better verbal and written communication skills, can also be achieved with a long length of experience. It has been concluded by some studies that experience and education have a similar effect on police behavior, however experience takes much longer to accumulate and mistakes are often made during the process.

William Terrill, an associate professor of criminal justice at Michigan State and a co-author of the Ryberg study claims “irrespective of experience, college is going to give you bang for the buck right out of the gate. By having an education, you’re actually speeding up the process of experience and you’re getting the effect of better policing in the form of less force.”

An obvious barrier to obtaining a college education is cost however, the prevalence of online learning have helped to offer high-quality, cost-effective education from any computer. While some universities, such as American Military University, are based on an online delivery system, other colleges, such as Daytona State College, offer both traditional and online courses. Some higher education institutions even accept academy hours as transfer credit, meaning recruit academy courses can count towards an undergraduate degree.

3 thoughts on “Do Police Officers Need a College Education?

  • April 28, 2017 at 5:27 pm
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    I completely agree with this sentiment – when I wrote my paper on the importance of physical ability in police training, one surprising fact I found was that modern officers ranked physical ability as dead last in terms of crucial characteristics. Instead, having good reading and writing skills, as well as interpersonal abilities, was much more important. This makes sense given that police reports consist of lots of writing, and that proper people skills are needed to de-escalate situations. As college helps develop a way of thinking, it is only natural that it allows police officers to better do their job.

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  • May 4, 2017 at 9:05 pm
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    I completely agree with your post. In my political science class called “Racial and Ethnic Minorities in American Politics” we discussed the effects of college education in shaping your view of other people in your world. College’s diversity automatically puts you in contact with other races and ways of thinking. It has a way of breaking down racial stereotypes. I think this is a critical aspect of policing and I can see how it would lead to the numbers that you present in your post. I think that it is important to consider interpersonal relations skills as a requirement for police.

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  • May 4, 2017 at 9:05 pm
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    I agree with your post. In my political science class called “Racial and Ethnic Minorities in American Politics” we discussed the effects of college education in shaping your view of other people in your world. College’s diversity automatically puts you in contact with other races and ways of thinking. It has a way of breaking down racial stereotypes. I think this is a critical aspect of policing and I can see how it would lead to the numbers that you present in your post. I think that it is important to consider interpersonal relations skills as a requirement for police.

    Reply

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