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It has long been argued that a college education is the cornerstone for professionalizing the police. Even though most police agencies still do not require a degree, many administrators openly acknowledge the advantages associated with hiring college graduates. Many studies conclude that college-educated police officers execute duties with more proficiency and less liability, while also demonstrating better social skills in the area of citizen interaction. Notwithstanding the advantages, however, the campaigns pushing for a college degree requirement in policing have encountered great resistance.
Early on, police personnel were not convinced that the anticipated rewards associated with college investments would emerge, often expressing skepticism concerning its value to policing duties. Law enforcement administrators demanded practical benefits and were reluctant to channel scarce resources into theoretical enterprises producing graduates with no applicable police skills.
Police managers also exhibited concerns that college exposure beyond two years might produce officers with a “humanistic” orientation antithetical to the paramilitary structure of policing. In short, decision-makers feared that officers with a strong intellectual bent would be resistant to many of the duties expected of police officers.
At first glance, educational progress is difficult to gauge because less than 1% of all police departments require a four-year degree for employment. In-depth examination, however, reveals that about one-fourth of all officers possess a four-year degree; and even more encouraging are estimates that two-thirds or more of all officers now possess at least one year of college studies. Administrators are beginning to tout these educational gains as a sign of progress, and a continuation of this educational pattern will increase promotional difficulties for those without a four-year degree.
Do all police officers need a college degree? Most officers still argue that a bachelor’s degree is not essential for the performance of policing duties, but a continuing emphasis on its attainment will persist for several reasons. One, a new generation of college-educated police administrators are favorably inclined toward the hiring and promotion of college-educated officers who seem to be less rigid and more ethically inclined.
Two, citizens support a degree requirement for police professionals. Worden’s study found that citizens rated college graduates higher on problem-solving and judgment skills, while Garner reported that an astounding 89% of citizens support a degree requirement for police professionals and were surprised to learn that the mandate was not already implemented.
Three, officers are beginning to align priorities with those of police management and the citizenry. Evidence of this alignment can be inferred from the growing numbers of college-educated officers, as well as officer opinions. For example, 83% of Bruns’ Oklahoma officers expressed the desire to attain additional education, with the great majority (68%) favoring a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Four, the growing support for community-oriented policing is a testament to a growing dependence on and trust of officers possessing the qualities promulgated by a college education.
It seems that a majority of police officers are not sold on the necessity of a college education but do personally desire its attainment. With this understanding, it is important that police managers support those aspirations with more than mere esoteric rhetoric regarding self-actualizing outcomes.
Most officers are of a practical mindset and require tangible evidence that the college experience is beneficial for personal and professional advancement. It is impossible for police managers to “sell” the benefits of a college-education to their subordinates with little more than intuition or personal experience in environments that abound with anti-education agendas.
Sworn officers from 16 municipal police agencies across the state of Alabama completed a survey administered during roll call. Of the 1,114 participating officers, the opinions of the 20% of those with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice were assessed to ascertain the value attached to the degree for various police-management functions. To further isolate the degree’s association with a general state of psychological health, work satisfaction and stress perceptions also were collected and compared to 1) officers with degrees in non-criminal justice disciplines and 2) officers without a four-year degree.
A majority (52%) of officers were 37 years of age and older and quite experienced, with 31% possessing fewer than six of years of police service. At the other end of the continuum, 21% of the officers had accumulated 21 or more years of police service. It should not be surprising, then, that the sample has a large faction of ranking officers: 29% occupied management posts, and 20% possessed supervision responsibilities.
Phase 1 of the evaluation process assesses the merit of a common assumption regarding the average police officer: Criminal justice programs offer no practical value beyond that taught in police academies. The opinions of officers in this study are diametrically opposed to such rhetoric. Nearly three-fourths of the officers (72%) purport that the criminal justice degree taught them valuable policing skills not offered in police academies, and only 9% disagreed with them.
With that myth put aside, Phase 2 turns attention to the value of the criminal justice degree with regard to seven distinct police-related functions. From high to low ratings (on a mean scale from 4 to 1), the areas are: understanding of the law, understanding of the criminal justice system, communication skills, critical thinking skills, administrative skills, human relations skills, and patrol/investigation procedures.
A detailed examination of officer opinion demonstrates the substantial value placed on the criminal justice degree. For example, the least supported domain still had substantial value, as 67% of the officers (26% definite and 41% substantial) acknowledged the degree’s contribution to procedural understanding (patrol and investigation). Furthermore, the police officers overwhelmingly perceived that the criminal justice degree made definite or substantial contributions to all other police functions (ranging from 75% to 93%).
Nearly half (49%) of police managers are much more supportive of the degree’s value, as managers regarded the significance of the degree higher on all domains. At the definite and substantial value levels, managers outpaced entry-level officers as indicated by the following percentage comparisons (management/officer): understanding of the law (96/91), communication skills (94/86%), administrative skills (88/77%), understanding of the criminal justice system (88/84%), critical thinking skills (87/82%), human relations skills (87/75%), and patrol/investigation procedures (78/58%).
Officers who resist educational campaigns frequently search for reasons that invalidate college educations. In keeping with that goal, educational opponents often argue that the optimism espoused from educated officers is primarily grounded in acquired benefits more so than intellectual properties stemming from the college experience.
Officer opinions in this study, however, simply do not support such an argument. More than half (60%) of the officers stated that possession of the degree made little or no contribution to salary enhancement, and 53% purported the same for increased promotional opportunities. As such, it is obvious that the officers did not regard the acquisition of the four-year degree as an avenue to more money or promotion.
A comparison of college-educated officers in criminal justice with those of other academic disciplines also fails to uncover differences accounting for the value attached to the criminal justice degree. An evaluation of these differing academic groups produced nearly identical results, with high job satisfaction and moderate-low stress emerging for both academic groupings.
Inspection of job satisfaction (69%) and stress (27%) for officers without bachelor’s degrees confirms the irrelevance of these associated agents as causal origins for the value attributed to the criminal justice degree. Essentially, the four-year degree does not seem to alter job satisfaction and stress; and therefore, it is illogical to assume that the college-educated officers in this study value the criminal justice degree as a result of a more satisfied or less stressed existence.
Since the late-1970s, most criminal justice programs have abandoned vocational orientations and now foster intellectual endeavors worthy of academic investment. As such, criminal justice has emerged as the choice degree for most aspiring police professionals. Critics of academic criminal justice still abound and often choose to interpret its growing popularity as proof that it has surrendered to the demands of justice professionals.
The findings of this project illustrate that police officers, who should know best, regard modern criminal justice programs as offering quality and value for the police mission. It is indisputable that the criminal justice-degreed officers in this study overwhelmingly conclude that the criminal justice degree enhanced their abilities to engage in police administration activities.
Officers greatly believed that the educational journey promoted skills related to communication, human relations, administration, and critical thinking, as well as a wealth of know-ledge regarding the criminal justice system, law, and procedure. That said, not nearly enough progress has been made to advance the police education movement. The time has long passed when a person is assumed to possess the fundamental knowledge and technical skill required to be an effective police officer simply because he “dons a uniform, straps on a gun, and flashes a badge.”
Armed with the findings of this study, it is hoped that police managers can now more actively encourage officers to pursue the criminal justice degree as a contributing mechanism to personal and professional advancement. Only when the educational movement becomes more grounded will policing be regarded as a full-fledged profession capable of attaining all the privileges appertaining to that distinction.
Philip E. Carlan, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of administration of justice at the University of Southern Mississippi. He has a doctorate in adult education with a concentration in psychology and a master’s degree in criminal justice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published in Law and Order, Dec 2006
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