By Chip Kain
Issues in Justice Managing Editor
It seems like buzzwords and concepts dominate virtually every aspect of modern American society. Professionalism is not only a buzzword; it is a concept that is permeating law enforcement agencies across the nation, especially in the wake of large civil penalties and public embarrassments.
Pinizzotto, Bohrer, and Davis (2011) noted that professionalism is a product that is achieved through training, beginning with the officer’s initial academy training, continuing with his inservice training, and then culminating with training he will receive as his career progresses into command and administrative positions. Training is a good way to ensure that new recruits and veteran officers alike maintain professional standards, but how important is higher education in promoting professionalism within the law enforcement ranks, especially considering that many departments and states across the nation maintain professional police forces without requiring a basic level of college education for rookie police officers (Hilal, & Erickson, 2010)?
The answer seems that professionalism and education do go hand-in-hand, and the modern demands placed upon police officers requires a more educated basic recruit; however, statistically, law enforcement agencies are not buying into the education-professionalism link, as only about nine percent of departments across the country require post-secondary education for their new officers (Hilal, & Erickson, 2010). Today’s law enforcement officers are expected to use more than their service weapons and batons to maintain law and order, instead they need to be able to work through complex problems in neighborhoods as the concept of community policingcontinues to dominate policing strategies across the United States (Hilal, & Erickson, 2010).
One of the chief reasons for keeping standards low and not requiring some degree of higher education in new police recruits is that it is difficult to attract the number of candidates needed to keep up with the rate of attrition, which is a problem that even higher-paying agencies are experiencing that require post-secondary education or four year degrees in new officers (Johnson, 2006). Departments are also concerned that requiring college degrees will negatively impact their ability to recruit and hire minority candidates, thus affecting their departmental diversity (Johnson, 2006).
Departments should subscribe to the philosophy held by the Minnesota Peace Officers Standards and Training board, which set an associate’s degree as the minimum requirement for all police officers in that state in 1977 (Hilal, & Erickson, 2010). Officers in Minnesota are statistically more educated than the people that they serve and protect, with approximately greater than one-third of officers surveyed in a recent study holding a four-year college degree, compared roughly 27-percent of Minnesotans. Additionally, approximately 14 percent of officers held a master’s degree, which would indicate that roughly 48 percent of officers in Minnesota are college educated above the junior college level (Hilal, & Erickson, 2010).
Basically, there should be some requirement for entry-level police officers involving a degree of higher education due to increasing demands placed upon police officers, but as Johnson (2006) noted, many departments are afraid of the recruiting ramifications from raising standards. If recruiting posed a problem, common sense would dictate that departments should invest more in the process, especially if they hope to lure more attractive and professional candidates. As far as requiring higher education for advancement within a law enforcement agency, Hilal and Erickson’s (2010) study of police attitudes towards education in Minnesota indicates that most officers believe that some level of higher education should be expected in candidates for promotion. The best argument for requiring higher education in supervisory or administrative positions is that those who are subject to the increased standards and to being managed are the ones indicating that they believe a higher degree of education should be required for those seeking promotion (Hilal, & Erickson, 2010). Hilal and Erickson (2010) noted that police operations and the requirements placed upon officers are becoming more complex, therefore management decisions would naturally be more complex as well; however, it does not compute to require higher standards for officers while expecting less for those in command of better educated entry level police officers.
The very basic determination that departments need to make is one of importance. Is filling vacancies with ease in a departments with recruits who do not possess the skills earning a college degree requires more important for the agency or is undertaking the often harder task of recruiting officers from a smaller pool of better-educated citizens the more appropriate response (Johnson, 2006)? Essentially, is ease in recruiting more important than finding the very best candidates? Requiring more education in recruits is challenging because not only is the applicant pool smaller and probably somewhat less diverse, agencies almost certainly will have to raise their standards as Johnson (2006) noted, but Pinizzotto, Bohrer, and Davis (2011) acknowledged that departments have the choice to grow professionally or face the consequences that come from lowering standards when communities are expecting the opposite.
Hilal, S. M., & Erickson, T. E. (2010). The Minnesota police education requirement: A recent analysis. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, 79(6), 17-21.
Johnson, K. (2006, 18 September). Police agencies find it hard to require degrees. USA Today. Retrieved from http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/2006-09-17-police-education_x.htm
Pinizzotto, A.J., Bohrer, S., & Davis, E.F. (2011). Law enforcement professionalism. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, 80(4), 10-13.