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Five reasons police officers should have college degrees

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.

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

  1. Jorge Javier Roman Garate 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 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. Avatar 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 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. Avatar 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.

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