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 that police officers with a college degree provide evidence of better overall job performance and better advancement opportunities then 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 when gaining compliance. The study also discovered evidence of officers with a higher education background also makes it more likely they will demonstrate the creativity and problem-solving skills needed to make a community-oriented policing model succeed.

These studies show that modern police departments need highly-educated officers in an evolving technology-oriented society.

Slow to change

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

None of the studies indicated education is a replacement for police street experience. The studies indicate that officers with degrees are likely going to make better decisions independently based on their educational experience 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 skill with independent decision-making and problem-solving skills
  • Better skill at articulating their thoughts
  • Greater aptitude for innovative thinking
  • Improved adaptability skills
  • Fewer on-the-job injuries and assaults
  • More proficient in technology
  • Enhanced report-writing and grant-writing skills
  • Improved budget and management skills
  • Fewer departmental disciplinary actions and internal investigations
  • Less likely to be involved in unethical behavior
  • Less likely to use force as the first response
  • Displays maturity for age
  • Better at discovering extra resources
  • 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 adaptation 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 attend college than ever before. Attending traditional classes can be tough when officers work rotating shifts, have in-service training and make court appearances.

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 classroom 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 a great way to earn college credit. CLEP is a 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 they are 90-minute examinations ranging on topics such as U.S. history, Spanish and algebra. CLEP offers a wide range of other general education topics as well. Pass the CLEP exam, and earn college credit towards the general education requirements for an undergraduate degree.

The outlook for educated officers

Law enforcement has changed 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 understanding ways to fight cybercrime, will take educated detectives using a multidisciplined approach to combat today's crimes.

With the trend of citizens with video cameras watching uniformed police officers perform their duties, the research indicates that educated officers will act with more desecration, 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.