All about Police Officer Education (page 2)
I was always interested in public service and public safety. Before I went to college, I was a fire department explorer and then a volunteer. In college, I worked with several police and fire agencies. After graduation, I applied to police departments in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago. The only one hiring was in Rochester, New York. I had to take the civil service exam, and score well to get hired. In agencies that use the test, your score is the most important part of the process. It doesn't matter what your abilities or education are if you don't score well.
—Chief of Police, 11 years experience
IT MAY not seem that in today's technologically oriented workplace the need for advanced education should be questioned, but this is not the reality in police work. Whether police candidates should have only a high school diploma, a two-year degree, a four-year degree, or military experience continues to be debated within the profession.
Advanced education in fields such as police studies, criminal justice, public administration, or related fields would seem most appropriate for a better understanding of the nature of police work. But many advocates of education for police candidates believe that any major is appropriate. They believe that what an educated officer brings is not information about policing per se, but a broader perspective on life. This includes critical thinking skills that help an officer to exercise discretion wisely and that contribute to an open-minded approach to people whose backgrounds and lives are different from the officer's own.
This echoes the standards set by police agencies. Of those that expect candidates to have education beyond a high school or General Education Diploma (GED), few specify a major field of study. More likely is a minimum number of credits rather than a specific field of study. Examples of the wording of educational requirements include "some college," "60 credits," "a two-year degree," or, least common, "a four-year degree."
Because a college degree is a requirement for such a small percentage of law enforcement agencies, you may be asking yourself whether you should attend college or whether you should worry about completing college if you receive an offer of employment. For some, this will be as important a decision as accepting a job offer. Consider the following: According to the U.S. Census, in 2007, more than 25% of adults over the age of 25 had at least a bachelor's degree.
Professionally, you must keep in mind that although most departments require only a high school-level education, actual hiring practices indicate that more than half the applicants you will be competing against have educations beyond the minimum requirements.
Just the Facts
The questions surrounding whether police officers should be college graduates is not new. They were raised in 1917, when August Vollmer, the chief of police in Berkeley, CA, hired only college graduates as police officers. Few departments, though, followed Vollmer's lead.
You should also consider what an education will mean toward promotion opportunities. Many departments that require only high school or a minimum number of college credits for entry require additional education to move up in rank. As more candidates applying for positions presented more than high school education, many departments feared that rookie officers would be supervised by those less educated than they were. To counter this concern, many agencies have instituted a variety of education requirements for promotion. The progression is simple; more credits are required for each rank than for the one below it. For instance, if a high school diploma is required to become a police officer, 30 or 60 credits might be required to take the test to become a sergeant. If 60 credits are required to become a police officer, to be eligible to take the test for sergeant an applicant might need at least 90 credits and an applicant for lieutenant might be required to have a four-year degree. Not all departments follow this exact credit count, but the basic premise is that each higher rank is more educated than the ones below it. The actual formula may differ, but the theory is the same. If you have already attained the higher level of education upon entry, you will not need to rush to meet those requirements later in your career. This can be especially helpful if by then you have started a family or predict that as you get somewhat older and more involved in your career and your community, your time to pursue your education might decrease.
If your long-term goal is to be a chief of police, particularly in a large agency, a campus police department, or one with education requirements, a bachelor's degree has become a virtual requirement even if not so stated. There are exceptions, but the larger the department, the more likely that a candidate for chief of police will also have a graduate or a law degree. Similarly, candidates running for sheriff, particularly of larger, full-service offices, are as likely to stress their education as their policing experience.
Just the Facts
In the late 1960s, the Law Enforcement Education Program (LEEP) began to provide tuition assistance for in-service officers. LEEP, organized somewhat like the GI Bill, was meant to encourage police officers with college experience who had some college credits, to work toward obtaining an associate's degree (generally two years of college, or a total of about 60 credits) or a bachelor's degree (four years of college, generally between 120 and 130 credits). During its operation from 1968 to 1976, LEEP funded hundreds of thousands of police officers who attended college. By 1975, more than 700 community colleges and almost 400 four-year institutions offered programs they believed would appeal to police officers. Today many schools offer degrees or certificates in police studies, criminal justice, or related academic areas.
The majority of federal agencies require a four-year degree for entry. Some are selective enough to hire only those with degrees in specialized fields such as computer science, accounting, or forensics, or who are fluent in a foreign language.
You might also decide at some point that the irregular hours and weekend and night work do not mesh with your lifestyle but you would like to remain in a criminal justice profession. If so, it is likely that you will require a fouryear degree to join a probation or parole agency or many specialized government investigative agencies.
Requirements to move up through the ranks may differ from entry standards in your department, or there may be educational standards for acceptance in some specialized sections. If you enter having attained at least two years of college education, it is more likely that you will be prepared to apply for a specialist position or for promotion. If you have a bachelor of arts or science (BA or BS) degree when you enter policing, you will have the luxury of knowing you are prepared for all ranks and can take advantage of any tuition assistance or programs that encourage you to continue your education at the graduate level. This is an important consideration; according to the same report on departments that require some college, more than 30% of departments reported offering either educational incentive pay (higher salary based on years of education) or tuition reimbursement to those attending classes after being hired.
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