Education and Advancing Your Law Enforcement Career

The Wickersham Commission and President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice recommended that higher education is a means to better professional policing. Research studies show police officers who have earned a college degree demonstrate better overall job performance and have greater advancement opportunities than their colleagues without a college degree.

Research conducted by Jason Rydberg and Dr. William Terrill from Michigan State University provides evidence that having 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.

A Field Slow To Change

Despite the research and benefits, why is the police profession slow at adapting higher educational standards and requirements for all officers? Only a few innovative and progressive agencies have instituted educational requirements for officers despite the evidence, and these agencies have reported getting a better pool of police candidates, increased professionalism, stronger community relations, and independent problem-solving skills.

While none of the studies indicated education as a replacement for street experience, they did show that educated officers are likely to make better decisions when dealing with confrontations.

Personal Benefits of Education

The studies indicate education has the following benefits on officers’ abilities and performance:

  • Better behavioral and performance characteristics
  • Better skilled with independent decision-making and problem-solving
  • Better skilled at articulating their thoughts
  • Greater aptitude for innovative thinking
  • Improved adaptability
  • Fewer on-the-job injuries and assaults
  • More proficient in technology
  • Enhanced grant writing abilities
  • Improved budget and management abilities
  • Fewer departmental disciplinary actions and internal investigations
  • Less likely to be involved in unethical behavior
  • Less likely to use force as the first response
  • Enhanced report writing skills
  • Displays maturity for age
  • Better at discovering extra resources
  • Demonstrated enhanced department responsibilities
  • 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)
  • Fewer formal citizen complaints
  • Promotion of higher aspirations
  • Better adapted to accepting critical feedback on job performance
  • Enhancement of minority recruitment efforts
  • Intellectual personal growth
  • Better adapted to retirement and second-career opportunities

Continuing Your Education, While You Serve

Going back to school will take some planning, commitment, and sacrifices. Universities and colleges have made it easier to get a degree than ever before. Attending traditional classes can be tough when officers are working rotating shifts, attending in-service training, and appearing in court. Sitting in a traditional classroom several times a week during the semester is difficult for law enforcement officers. Studying online or taking hybrid classes—a combination of traditional and online classes—is a good alternative.

Experienced police officers have a few ways to shorten the length of time it takes to earn a four-year degree by looking for programs that offer prior learning assessment (PLA). The PLA program is way to demonstrate prior learning through a portfolio process that will award college credit on topics such as patrol procedures, criminal investigation, criminal law, introduction to policing, and other police-related topics.

Taking exams through the College Level Examination Program (CLEP) is another great way to earn college credit. CLEP is the credit-by-examination program and is another way to shorten the length of the time it will take to earn a degree. CLEP exams are offered at most local community colleges and is a 90-minute examination ranging on topics such as U.S. History, Spanish, and Algebra. CLEP offers a wide range of other general education topics as well. By passing the CLEP exam you can earn college credit towards the general education requirements for an undergraduate degree.

The Outlook for Educated Officers

Law enforcement has changed dramatically in the last 30 years. With the adoption of new technology, computer skills are a basic requirement to function and communicate in a modern technical society. Understanding forensic science and how this evidence can strengthen a case, as well as the technical skills to understand ways to fight cybercrime, require educated detectives using a multi-disciplined approach. Modern police departments need highly educated people capable or leading change in an evolving technology-oriented society. With the trend of citizens with video cameras watching uniformed police officers perform their duties, research indicates that educated officers will act with more discretion, tolerance, and restraint when confronting resistance. By police officers continuing their education they make themselves a current and relevant asset to their departments and society.

About the Author

Mark Bond

Mark Bond worked in law enforcement and has been a firearms trainer for more than 30 years. His law enforcement experience includes the military, local, state, and federal levels as a police officer and criminal investigator. Mark obtained a BS and MS in Criminal Justice, and M.Ed in Educational Leadership with Summa Cum Laude Honors. Mark has a Doctor of Education (Ed.D) with a concentration in college teaching and learning. Mark is currently an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at a university and adjunct professor of administration of justice studies at a community college.