Should higher education be a requirement for police officers?
Since the wake of George Floyd’s death in 2020, Americans ask themselves how police training can be better suited for the world we live in. One solution offered is a higher education requirement.
Rise of the Issue
Presently, all 50 states require a high school diploma or its equivalent to be a police officer, but only 20 states require higher education. In those states that require high education, none require a four-year degree but either a two-year degree or a mixture of college credit and prior experience (whether law enforcement or military).
Those in favor of a higher education requirement for police officers cite the real-world benefits a degree would offer, from higher proficiency in reading and writing to increased leadership opportunities. Opponents, on the other hand, suggest that higher education does little to train officers for their job and would only saddle them with increased debt or dissuade them from becoming officers in the first place. However, both sides agree that some form of additional training should be required to help officers prepare for the ever-increasing complexities of the world we live in.
In 2003, a Bureau of Justice Statistics study found that 8% of localities required police to have some form of higher education and only 1% required a four year degree.
Presidential Commission Recommends Higher Education Requirement for Law Enforcement Officers
The President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice recommended educational standards for police officers be raised with the ultimate goal of a baccalaureate degree becoming the minimum standard.
Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act is Passed
A federal law was passed creating, among other things, the Law Enforcement Education Program to assist and encourage those in the criminal justice field in pursuing higher education.
Minnesota Adopts a Minimum Education Requirement
The Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training adopted a minimum requirement for all new police officers of a two-year college degree.
California Passes Minimum Qualifications Bill for Peace Officers
Signed on Sept. 30, 2021, the bill requires officials of the California Community Colleges to submit a plan by 2023, which includes requiring police officers to have a bachelor’s degree at the minimum.
Officers need to be trained in ways that promote deescalation and discourage the use of lethal force unless absolutely necessary. Proponents and opponents disagree over whether higher education can properly teach officers to de-escalate violent encounters.
Real World Skills
Proponents of higher education requirements for police officers suggest that would-be officers learn skills that are essential to the job but they would not otherwise receive, while others say the current higher education system is more geared to preparing people for white-collar jobs.
While some believe that having a college degree is a determining factor in whether police officers proactively work with the community they’re in, others think that this is only one possible factor among many others.
Graduating college reduces the likelihood of police officers using force
Studies have shown that officers who have graduated from college are 40% less likely to use force, be it verbal or physical, and 30 % less likely to shoot their guns.
Higher education can foster critical thinking and problem solving skills.
Police officers who are able to think outside the box and think critically about the situations they face are more likely to try to analyze the root causes of crime through problem-oriented policing, rather than rely on the reactive policing model that tends to more easily resort to the use of force.
Officers with college experience can develop stronger ties to the community.
College learning often provides opportunities to develop civic engagement through internships or service-learning courses that help future police officers engage with the community they are in.
Higher education can raise intercultural awareness and promote openness to diversity.
College can be an opportunity to raise future officers’ intercultural awareness and competence to better understand the community they serve, understand potential cultural differences, and how to best navigate these differences on the field.
Police officers can have a better understanding of the law with higher education.
As laws become more complex and numerous, police officers could benefit from receiving a sort of formal training that can best prepare them to read, interpret, and implement the laws they swear to uphold and enforce.
Requiring higher education can decrease minority representation in police.
Higher education, though becoming more diverse, still does not have equal representation across racial lines and can act as a barrier to entry against those already unlikely to pursue higher education.
Police officers are already required to go through the police academy.
The police academy could be seen as a form of higher education where any courses required for future police officers’ education could be offered, without requiring an additional two- or four-year degree.
Most skills needed for police officers on the field can be learned through on-the-job training.
Although some degree of theoretical learning is necessary, most of the things an officer needs to learn can only be honed through experience on the field, something that a higher education does not necessarily provide.
Officers with higher education may feel overqualified.
An officer who also holds a degree from a college or university may look at their salary and promotion opportunity and feel that the profession does not adequately compensate them compared to their classmates who do not become police officers.
Higher education can place a financial burden on would-be police officers.
As the cost of higher education continues to rise, and more Americans are saddled with student loan debt, the price of a degree could act as a barrier to entry to the police force.