Global progressive policing

Five reasons police officers should have college degrees

The degree entry debate
Leana Bouffard - Gaylene Armstrong

Recent events in the United States have led to calls for more training and credentialing to reduce the use of excessive force by police. Dr. Leana Bouffard of Iowa State University and Dr. Gaylene Armstrong of the University of Nebraska provide five reasons why police officers should be encouraged to pursue a college degree so they are better equipped to lead much-needed reform.

Following several deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police, President Donald J. Trump issued an executive order on June 16 that calls for increased training and credentialing to reduce the use of excessive force by police.

Higher education was identified in the 2015 President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing as one of six effective ways to reduce crime and build better relations between police and the communities they serve

The order did not mention the need for police to get a college education, even though higher education was identified in the 2015 President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing as one of six effective ways to reduce crime and build better relations between police and the communities they serve.

As researchers who specialise in crime and punishment, we see five reasons why police officers should be encouraged to pursue a college degree.

1. Less likely to use violence

Research shows that, overall, college-educated officers generate fewer citizen complaints. They are also terminated less frequently for misconduct and less likely to use force.

Regarding the use of force, officers who’ve graduated from college are almost 40% less likely to use force. Use of force is defined as actions that range from verbal threats to use force to actually using force that could cause physical harm.

College-educated officers are also less likely to shoot their guns. A study of officer-involved shootings from 1990 to 2004 found that college-educated police officers were almost 30% less likely to fire their weapons in the line of duty. Additionally, one study found that police departments that required at least a two-year degree for officers had a lower rate of officers assaulted by civilians compared to departments that did not require college degrees.

A study of officer-involved shootings from 1990 to 2004 found that college-educated police officers were almost 30% less likely to fire their weapons in the line of duty

Studies have found that a small proportion of police officers – about 5% – produce most citizen complaints, and officers with a two-year degree are about half as likely to be in the high-rate complaint group. Similarly, researchers have found that officers with at least a two-year degree were 40% less likely to lose their jobs due to misconduct.

2. More problem-oriented

The 2015 task force recommended community and problem-oriented policing strategies as ways to strengthen police-community relations and better respond to crime and other social problems. Problem-oriented policing is a proactive strategy to identify crime problems in communities. The strategy also calls for officers to analyze the underlying causes of crime, develop appropriate responses, and assess whether those responses are working. Similarly, community-oriented policing emphasizes building relationships with citizens to identify and respond to community crime problems. Research has found that when police departments use community-policing strategies, people are more satisfied with how police serve their community and view them as more legitimate.

Research has found that when police departments use community-policing strategies, people are more satisfied with how police serve their community and view them as more legitimate

Community policing and problem-oriented policing require problem solving and creative thinking – skills that the college experience helps develop.

For example, internships and service-learning opportunities in college provide future police officers a chance to develop civic engagement skills. It also gives them the chance to get to know the communities they will police. Among students who participated in a criminal justice service-learning course working with young people in the community, 80% reported a change from stereotypical assumptions that all of them would be criminals to a better understanding of them as individuals with goals and potential – some not so different from the students’ own dreams. Almost 90% said they had come to understand the community, which they believed would serve them in their criminal justice careers.

Among street-level officers who have the most interaction with the public, having a bachelor’s degree significantly increases commitment to community policing. These officers tend to work more proactively with community members to resolve issues and prevent problems rather than only reacting to incidents when called.

3. Enables officers to better relate to the community

Higher education has been shown to enhance the technical training that police get in the academy or on the job.

For instance, as college students, aspiring or current police officers participate in internships, do community service or study abroad. All of these things have been shown to increase critical thinkingmoral reasoning and openness to diversity. College also leads to more intercultural awareness. Taken together, all of these skills are essential for successful policework.

Research has also shown that police officers themselves recognize the value of a college degree. Among other things, they say a college education improves ethical decision-making skills, knowledge and understanding of the law and the courts, openness to diversity, and communication skills. In one study, officers with criminal justice degrees said their education helped them gain managerial skills.

4. Helps officers identify best practices

A college education helps officers become better at identifying quality information and scientific evidence. This in turn better enables them to more rigorously and regularly evaluate policies and practices adopted by their departments.

For example, many departments employ de-escalation tactics that aim to reduce use of force. A critical step in knowing whether an approach is achieving its intended goal is evaluating its impact. Officers who have an understanding of scientific methods, as taught in college, are better positioned to adjust their department’s policies.

5. Builds better leaders

Bringing about meaningful police reform requires transformational leadership. Higher education, including graduate degrees, can enhance the leadership potential of criminal justice professionals and support their promotion through the ranks.

Leaders with a graduate degree are twice as likely to be familiar with evidence-based policing, which uses research to guide effective policy and practice

Police officers with at least some college experience are more focused on promotion and expect to retire at a higher rank compared to officers with no college. It should come as little surprise, then, that police administrators, including police chiefs, are more likely to hold college and post-graduate degrees. Leaders with a graduate degree are twice as likely to be familiar with evidence-based policing, which uses research to guide effective policy and practice.

Higher education and police reform efforts are at a critical juncture.

Educated law enforcement professionals will be better equipped to lead much-needed reform efforts. State and local agencies and governments can do more to encourage officers to seek a college degree, including through incentives, like the Nebraska Law Enforcement Education Act, which allows for a partial tuition waiver or the Quinn Bill in Massachusetts, which provides scaled bonuses depending on the degree an officer holds or tuition reimbursement scholarships like those offered by the Fraternal Order of Police. Colleges and universities can help officers acquire the skills needed to help to reestablish trust between our communities and those who are sworn to protect and serve.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

About the authors

Dr. Leana A. Bouffard, Professor and Chair, Department of Sociology, Iowa State University joined the Department of Sociology as Professor and Chair in July of 2017. She was previously on the faculty at Sam Houston State University, Washington State University, North Dakota State University, and Indiana University. In her most recent position at Sam Houston State University, Dr. Bouffard also served as the Director of the Crime Victims’ Institute. Her research interests include life course and developmental approaches to understanding offending, including the impact of various life events (e.g., military service and parenting/parenthood) on offending patterns. She also conducts research on violence against women, police response in domestic violence and sexual assault, and sexual aggression among college students. Dr. Bouffard was identified as an “academic star” in 2007 in a study of publication trajectories of recent female criminology and criminal justice Ph.D.’s. She received her Ph.D. (2001) and M.A. (1998) in Criminology and Criminal Justice from the University of Maryland. She also has a B.S. in Psychology (1995) from Duke University.

Dr. Gaylene Armstrong, Director, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice; Co-Director, Nebraska Collaborative for Violence Intervention and Prevention, University of Nebraska Omaha is an expert in correctional program and policy evaluation. Her research has extended to numerous at-risk populations including youth, female, and sex offender populations. Armstrong has consulted with the National Institute of Corrections, the National Institute of Justice, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the Iowa Community Corrections Improvement Association and most recently agencies and community organisations throughout Nebraska. She was recognised as one of the Most Prolific Female Scholars in Elite Criminology and Criminal Justice Journals and Top 20 Female “Academic Stars” in Criminology by the Journal of Criminal Justice Education. Armstrong is the first ASC DCS member to be awarded both the Distinguished New Scholar Award and the Distinguished Scholar Award (2019). She has published in several academic journals, and is the author of the book Private vs. Public Operation: Juvenile Correctional Facilities. Armstrong received her PhD and MA in Criminology and Criminal Justice from the University of Maryland, and B.A.(Hons.) in Psychology from the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Canada.

10 Responses to “Five reasons police officers should have college degrees”

  1. Jorge Javier Roman Garate says:

    Thanks to Dr Bouffard & Dr Armstrong for sharing a very interesting article. As you mentioned, “Community policing and problem-oriented policing require problem-solving and creative thinking – skills that the college experience helps develop”. That´s what we had been doing in our Dubai Police Academy offering 4 years of college degrees in the last 28 years.
    All the best,

  2. Montell Neufville says:

    Five reasons why I don’t agree that all officers need a degree in England and Wales to be effective. Of course having a degree cannot hurt, but there are many types of degrees and most are not at all relevant to what a police officer needs in today’s society.

    Here is my take on why it may not necessarily follow that having a degree is important.

    1) The Peelan principles state that the police are the community and the community are the police. Not everyone in the communities that are policed has a degree and there are thousands of officers who do a fantastic job without one, at every rank level

    2) Problem orientated policing is a very useful management tool especially for police leaders however this is not taught in the vast majority of degree courses. Its about having either a relevant qualification or relevant experience. Some people are fast learners and can pick up problem orientated policing n the job.

    3) I’m not persuaded that it enables officers to better relate to the community. Attending college and Universities does have a benefit to expose the individual to many different cultures. Many more people go to college than university then they go on to work, This can expose the individuals to the same societal and cultural awareness as attending a University. (In the UK its a University degree, in the US its a college degree)

    There are university students from all over the world in the UK and clearly there is a benefit from community engagement. But this doesn’t also mean that an individual should have a degree. Youth workers, Mental health staff, teachers community workers, neighborhood officers and housing associations staff can gain exactly the same life skills and community empathy without having a non relevant degree.

    In fact having a degree can have the opposite effect. Some individuals with degrees may look down on people who they might see as less intelligent than themselves perhaps because they are from poorer backgrounds or because of where they live.

    4) Helps officers identify best practice Again not necessarily. This is down to the individual I know many officers with degrees who do not identify best practice and a number of senior people without a degree who do.

    One of the biggest problems in British policing is the failure to learn lessons. There are so many reports relating to police improvements which have not been implemented and there are many examples of best practice all over this country and in other countries which again are not shared. Is the reason for this not being implemented because most leaders don’t have a degree? I would maintain that most senior police officers already have a degree in England but yet the problem exists.

    5) Builds better leaders. Again this would depend on the individual and on the degree. Another weakness in UK policing is the ability to act on data. Leadership includes managing people, managing resources, achieving objectives supporting your staff and teams. In the criminal justice system and from the Home office there is a vast amount of data produced relating to policing but I have seen numerous examples where this is not used to inform decision making.

    Many of the analysts and senior officers already have degrees. Some forces will enable new recruits to take a degree on entry during day release where the modules are relevant to policing. This is far better than ensuring that applicants have ANY degree. Its all about relevance both in the degree undertaken and the experience the recruit bring to the table in my view

    this is my take

  3. spencer matthews says:

    I dont believe it is practical to require police officers to obtain a degree prior to joining- purely for the practical reason that it places a considerable financial burden on the prospective police officer and may result in excellent officers from ‘less advantaged’ (however that is defined) backgrounds being able to join. One of the best officers I know came from a background as a storeman in a factory, and it is only once inside the police they are reaching their full potential.

  4. Montell Neufville says:

    I agree Spencer Mathews but did you mean “unable to join” not “able to join? or to put it another way it would deter prospective police officers from joining

    With the uplift forces want more people to apply to become officers not considerably less.

  5. spencer matthews says:

    Thanks for picking up my typo Montell. Yes I did mean to say it would become a barrier to joining to those who would find obtaining a degree financially (or culturally) difficult.

  6. Bio says:

    The current populist and dismissive attitude towards higher education and other official qualifications in UK Law enforcement is really disappointing, especially at a time when attaining any sort of formal training and qualifications in UK LE organisations is getting more and more difficult and discriminatory due to budget cuts. Training is often open to few, based on role and even age (young officers favoured over older ones) instead of being open to all officers who want to expand their knowledge as life long learning / CPD.

    Let me be clear – Specialist university qualifications and degrees:

    – Expand your knowledge and way of thinking
    – Make you less biased and more open to challenge and innovation
    – You learn not to follow authority blindly but challenge authority and ranks and promote best practice and innovation
    – Offer invaluable insight and expertise in specialist areas of policing such as cyber, intel collection and analysis, academia engagement etc.
    – It becomes easier to see patterns, opportunities and link elements together
    – You learn to be a free thinker

    All this has nothing to do with what the degree is about and what they teach you. It has everything to do with learning how to flex your mind, adapt and research. You become more resistant to misinformation as well and a better communicator who knows how to respect the opinion of others.

    Don’t wait until you join the police to get a degree. The earlier you get to learn to think and act in a flexible way, the better, before you become institutionalised by the police / military mentality. After you get a first degree, then join the government organisation of your choice and pursue further part-time studies (MSc, PhD, degrees in other subjects) if you wish, so that you have a source of income and a stable job that will allow you to move your career forward.

    By bringing your educated self into what traditionally is a very macho and experience- based system you will be a reformer and the whole policing is going to benefit from an evidenced-based approach to decision making! This is what modern policing needs to serve and support the communities better.

  7. PC_Plod says:

    5 Reasons Degrees should not be a prerequisite to be a police officer:

    1. Discriminates against poor applicants who can’t afford to saddle themselves with enormous debt. Or those who have responsibilities such as caregiving they can’t simply drop to pursue a degree. Thus shrinking the pool of talent and excluding otherwise suitable candidates.

    2. The pay in the UK Police Service is laughable – if degrees become a must, compensation should increase significantly to reflect this higher educational requirement.

    3. Your average bog standard response officer does NOT need to know evidence-based policing research, or the scientific method to analyse the most efficient results of double-blind studies etc. etc. They need to know how to talk to people, how to apply their powers proportionately and lawfully, and how to utilise common sense.

    4. The police are supposed to reflect the demographics of society. Given that as frontline officers we spend the vast majority of our time dealing with working-class, high-school or sixth form-educated members of the public, should our service not reflect this?

    5. The article is filled with unexplained data. Less educated officers are more likely to use force? Well what’s the ratio of degree-educated officers in the frontline ranks vs sitting in the office as a higher rank or office-based worker? The article even states that degree-educated officers chase promotion more than others! (probably to earn enough to pay off their tuition fees?)

  8. JohnXmp says:

    An interesting article and I must say some very interesting responses.
    I completed my 30 years and retired as a detective (no degree).
    I returned to the policing family as a crime trainer and have been doing so now for a number of years.

    With the apprenticeship levy, it is essential that the police recruit officers onto a three-year degree course (probationary period) in order to recoup the funds. I am not in any way cynical this is a fact and the reason my force started the degree apprenticeship first long before considering degree holders. So we have been inundated with officers who have to not only work full time but study for a degree as well, made more intense by Operation Uplift (our quota of the Boris Bobbies).
    This has required a close working partnership with one of our cities Universities. The knock-on effect as we are delivering the majority of the training is that all trainers have to be educated to Level 7. So being one of the lowly mortals with no degree I was signed up for a Policing Studies degree (Level 6 first). I am entering my final year and being someone who reads and keeps up to date on policing trends / Knowledge I have found the course very enlightening. The thing is would it have made me a better police officer?
    My honest opinion is NO.
    Yes, it would have had some benefits from an analytical perspective and critical thinking, but in the routine day to day work it would not have been a help. I say this as much of policing relies on knowing legislation, your powers, and the procedures to follow. I do not feel that this is achieved with degree level education. I observed this in a training scenario just the other day, an intake of recruits three months in were undertaking a hydra exercise. These decisions they made resulted in what out on the streets would have been illegal searches and arrests.
    Fortunately, this was a training environment had this been anywhere else this could have resulted in disciplinary action against the officers.
    I note from the article the researchers imply that by being educated you are less likely to use excessive force, I worked with many officers without higher education who did not use excessive force and this usually came down to communication skills honed by actually speaking to people often at their own level.
    As one of the other responses stated policing should reflect the community it serves and I would agree we may miss out on some outstanding recruits by setting the bar ever higher.

    I do want to make one thing perfectly clear I am not against degree apprenticeships especially as anyone joining the police these days will need a degree or higher to progress through the ranks. I am a firm believer that we never stop learning or developing, but perhaps there should be a more phased approach, as the drive for an educated police service is not going to stop, and not everyone who is educated will make an effective police officer.

    Oh and one final point I note many mention the cost of tuition, I wonder how retention will be affected? Students on our three-year degree apprenticeship are paid a full wage and all their fees for university are paid. Where else can you get a degree for nothing? What is to stop these officers from applying for jobs in the private sector with a CV showing a degree education and the fact they have the integrity of serving as a police officer.
    We will have to wait and see.

  9. davidbfpo says:

    Has anyone looked at the experience, nay ‘lessons learnt’ from nursing in the UK which is now a degree entry profession? How has that worked out – for the public?

  10. Derek X Rat says:

    I joined the Service in 1969. Having 8 O Levels I was referred to as an ‘intellectual’ – at the time many in the Police were ex WW2 veterans. Fifteen years later, as an Inspector, I was running a relief of 50 plus officers in Central London. Every third officer joining the relief had a degree reflecting the economic environment at the time and I time it would be an interesting to study ‘retention’ of those officers when the employment situation improved. I took the opportunity to study (part time) for an LLB (Bar qualifying) Honours degree, partially funded by the Force (for which I am suitably grateful). On graduating with a 2/2 I sat back, awaiting for my achievement to be recognised. It was a long unfruitful wait and perhaps not helped by my choice to return to traffic duties. I perceived my situation to be that there were two, distinct, power bases within the higher ranks, the theoreticians and the pragmatists. Hoping to have a ‘foot in both camps’ I found I was equally shunned by both groups for my apparent association with the opposing group perhaps seeing my presence as more of a threat than an asset. My service came to an abrupt halt when I was seen to ‘argue’ with a Deputy Assistant Commissioner (before an audience of about 80 Police Offers/Staff) on a point of law on the introduction of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act. Thereafter the DAC took an active interest in my career and was the cause of my retirement with almost 26 years, six months service. Retirement saw me participating in 2 Home Office Studies and working for the World Bank and other organisations and my abilities were celebrated by those employing me. My experience suggests to me that in Policing, to be overweight in graduates, is not necessarily a good thing. The strength of Policing in the UK is that it represents the society it serves which is a good reason to avoid ‘elitism’ in Police recruiting. I would much prefer to enter a public order situation with strong and obedient colleagues. Many years ago I was patrolling in a vehicle with a graduate probationer. I instructed the officer to detain the driver of a van who I recognised as a disqualified driver. My instructions were questioned WHY. I replied in terms even a University educated probationer would have no difficulty in understanding. The current balance of graduates and no-graduates is a strength, not a weakness.

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