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College for cops? Studies show it helps their behavior, stress levels

Despite research that demonstrates police officers with at least two years of college education are much less likely to be the subject of misconduct complaints, and less likely to use force as their first option to gain compliance, many police and sheriff’s departments still hire recruits with only a high school diploma. In my own village and county in Chicago’s western suburbs, neither the village police department nor the county sheriff’s department require any college credits.  

This is unfortunate. As John L. Hudgkins has noted in The Baltimore Sun, “There are serious questions as to whether a modern democracy can survive without better prepared law enforcement officials able to handle the stresses of the job without overreacting.” In a study of disciplinary cases against Florida officers, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) noted that, “Officers with only high school educations were the subjects of 75 percent of all disciplinary actions. Officers with four-year degrees accounted for 11 percent of such actions.” Since approximately 30 percent of officers have achieved four-year college degrees, the results of the Florida study appear to provide strong evidence that higher education correlates with good behavior. A separate study found that officers with undergraduate degrees performed on par with officers who had 10 years of additional experience. 

With such obvious benefits, both to the police and the communities they serve, advocates for police reform would do well to press local agencies to require a minimum of two years of college, including specific coursework in psychology and sociology. Many community colleges and career schools offer associate degrees in criminal justice or police science, with such coursework embedded in the curriculum. McHenry College in Northern Illinois is a good example. Its associate of applied science degree in criminal justice requires coursework in written composition, speech, history, humanities, math or science, psychology and sociology. Coursework in the law enforcement option includes courses in interpersonal communication and the sociology of race and ethnicity.  

A national survey of 958 police agencies, published in 2017, found that 30.2 percent of police officers had four-year college degrees, 51.8 percent had two-year degrees, and 5.4 percent had graduate degrees. Higher levels of education were concentrated in the Northeast and in wealthier communities. Poorer neighborhoods had a higher proportion of less-educated police. Moreover, this survey covered all police officers, including those who acquired college degrees after joining their departments, typically in order to qualify for promotions.  

The true percentage of recruits with fewer than 60 college semester credits is higher than this survey would suggest. Hudgkins references a Bureau of Justice Statistics study in 2003 that found that 83 percent of all U.S. police agencies require a high school diploma, but only 8 percent require some college. Understandably, this study needs to be updated, but it is unlikely that college for cops is now required by the majority of police agencies.

One might well reckon that educational gaps can be made up in the specific training that recruits receive in police academies, which are almost universally a requirement for new officers to receive their commissions. An investigation of the content of academy training reveals that it focuses mainly on criminal law and procedures, handgun training, report writing, department policies, and other specific job duties.

Shockingly, police academy training in most states is less intensive than training required for hair stylists and interior decorators. CNN reported in 2016, “Many trade jobs require more hours of training time to get a license than it takes to get a police badge.” The report noted that police officers in California receive 664 hours of training, while cosmetologists are required to have 1,600 hours of training. In Florida, police receive 770 training hours, but interior designers must take 1,760 hours of training after completing five years of college.

The IACP has called for “increased educational standards” for hiring new officers. With such support from within the law enforcement community, Black Lives Matter and other advocates for law enforcement and criminal justice reform would do well to add to their reform agenda a requirement that new law enforcement officers have a minimum of two years of college — preferably an earned associate’s degree in criminal justice or related field. Existing officers lacking such credentials should be given a fixed time, and support, to earn them. 

Ronald Kimberling, Ph.D., a research fellow with the Independent Institute, was the U.S. Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education during the Reagan administration. He is a co-author of “The Talk of Washington.”

Tags police brutality Prevention Public safety US colleges and universities

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