Require college degrees for police [Commentary]

Higher education has been shown to directly influence the use of force choices officers make

September 30, 2014|By John L. Hudgins

Following the urban unrest in the 1960s, there was a move toward requiring college degrees for police officers. That movement never gained serious momentum across the nation. Today only a few of the police departments across the country require applicants to possess a college degree, and concerns are still being raised as to whether today's police officers are best prepared to deal with the myriad of situations presented in modern policing. Indeed 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.

The headlines today are full of officers making arguably poor — if not downright criminal — decisions: shooting unarmed black teenagers, beating up suspects, using Tasers to the point of death, conducting high-speed — and deadly — car chases through populated city streets, and so on.

A better educated police force would likely be better equipped to evaluate and respond to the volatile situations officers encounter.

The Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, Inc., notes that higher education is not an "absolute answer" but stated in its 1994 Standards Manual that "Officers who have received a broad general education have a better opportunity to gain a more thorough understanding of society, to communicate more effectively with citizens, and to engage in the exploration of new ideas and concepts."

Numerous studies conducted since the 1970s have suggested that the benefits of higher education in policing include:

•Better behavioral and performance characteristics;

•Fewer on-the-job injuries and assaults;

•Fewer disciplinary actions from accidents and use of force allegations;

•Greater acceptance of minorities;

•And a decrease in dogmatism, authoritarianism, rigidity and conservatism.

A person's commitment to the rigorous demands of a college education indicates dedication to the pursuit of excellence. College imparts not just extensive academic knowledge but real-life experience to help officers deal with the community. College exposes students to people with different backgrounds, languages, ideas, beliefs, attitudes and goals. Policing is one of a few "professions" that does not require a college education. A Baltimore city first-grade teacher making $35,000 a year must have a four-year degree and state certification. A Baltimore city police officer earning a $61,000 salary needs only a high school diploma, a clean driving record and about six-months in the police academy. The police officer, unlike the teacher, is empowered to use deadly force.

A 2010 study for the Police Quarterly shows that in encounters with crime suspects, officers with some college education or a four-year degree resorted to using force 56 percent of the time, while officers with no college education used force 68 percent of the time. "Force" included verbally threatening suspects, grabbing or punching them, using mace or pepper spray, hitting suspects with a baton, handcuffing, throwing to the ground or pointing/firing a gun.

William Terrill, a criminal justice faculty member at Michigan State University also found that a college education significantly reduces the likelihood of force occurring. He found that education did not make much difference when it came to arrests and searches, which are more constrained by law, but that it did when it came to the use of force, which is more discretionary and allows a greater more opportunity for biases to surface. High-school educated officers are more likely to assume that they are the law with the power to enforce their will. Officers with four-year degrees are more skilled at resolving problems without having to resort to force, and they often give citizens alternative means of compliance instead of simply relying on the stick, the mace or the gun.

Experience and education have similar effects on policing, but experience takes longer to accumulate, and many mistakes can be made along the way. Education actually speeds up the process of experience resulting in superior policing in the form of less force.

A Bureau of Justice Statistics study in 2003 found that 83 percent of all U.S. police agencies require a high school diploma, but only 8 percent require some college. Only 1 percent of police agencies require a four-year college degree. Baltimore area police departments are not in the 1 percent. This is ironic in a region with such a wealth of four year institutions each offering degrees in criminal justice, social and behavioral sciences. There also is a strong set of community college programs offering associate degrees that take police candidates beyond simple police academy training.

The long list of police misjudgments, and the millions of dollars in city payouts for police brutality claims highlighted in a recent Sun story ("Undue Force," Sept. 28) suggests that it is time to look more carefully at the preparation of those called on to "Protect and to Serve."

John L. Hudgins is an associate professor of sociology at Coppin State University. His email is jhudgins@coppin.edu.


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