Do law enforcement officers benefit from higher education? Today, all the signs are pointing to yes. A bachelor’s or master’s degree can lead to enhanced communication and interpersonal skills, greater discretion in using force as a first option, and more job opportunities.
Florida Tech criminal justice instructor Marshall Jones discusses the advantages of education for officers.
According to a recent report by the Journal of Criminal Justice Education (quoted in Futurity), more than 45 percent of law enforcement officers studied had a degree. Most had majored in criminal justice; others had pursued their studies in psychology or even business.
Soft Skills from a College Education
College education reinforces clear, concise writing and strong interpersonal skills. These are essential for today’s law enforcement fields, as officers are more scrutinized than ever before for their actions. A well-written report can reduce uncertainty and outside interpretation by providing a simple, unambiguous account of what happened.
Dallas (Texas) Police Lt. Mark Stallo, an adjunct professor in Florida Tech’s Criminal Justice program, says that having a degree helps officers communicate with diverse groups of people:
“Education’s important for law enforcement for a number of reasons. Dallas [police department] does require 45 semester hours unless you have four years of active service. What we’re looking for is initiative and we want people to have some diversity – something that they have learned outside of the home, something that’s unique – and the college setting and the military are two great places for them to learn about these diverse cultures that are out there. And so, what police officers today have to be able to do is to be open-minded and serve a multitude of different types of people, and to serve them all equally and fairly.”
In college, students are often called upon to defend a certain point of view. These exercises provide experience in building a strong, well-reasoned and persuasive rationalization for any situation. Having this ability helps with both internal communications and with interactions with the public and the press.
In today’s workplaces, people rarely work alone. That’s true in law enforcement too. Officers are often put into interdisciplinary teams, with each person contributing his or her talents toward a common goal. Interpersonal communication skills can help bridge the gap that arises too often when people have clashing personalities or differing ideas. With the skills learned in college, a law enforcement officer has the training and practice to guide a group to achieve its mission.
College-Educated Officers Use Less Force
Recent research finds that law enforcement officers with a higher education degree are less likely to use force as a first option in a difficult situation than officers without one. For example, in Southern California, it was discovered that college-educated law enforcement officers were 41 percent less likely to discharge their firearm than officers who were not college educated.
This research cites previous studies done into the area of the use of force since the 1980s, and most of them say that college education is a factor in reducing force behavior. A second study, done in 2001 with an unidentified sheriff’s department, found fewer complaints against college-educated officers than those without college education.
Why is this the case? These studies suggest college-educated officers are more likely to engage in problem-solving and creative thinking. This might help them discover situations that do not require the use of force in a difficult situation.
More Job Opportunities
With very few exceptions, law enforcement agencies do not require new hires to have a college degree. However, without a degree, an officer’s career path might be limited. A bachelor’s degree is usually a prerequisite to becoming a forensic science technician, probation officer or correctional officer. For careers in psychology and criminology, a master’s is usually preferred.
In an FBI report from 2013, nearly half of all law enforcement officers surveyed said they had gone to college to advance their careers in the field. Florida Tech has resources for those researching careers for college-educated LEOs.
When to Seek a Degree
Many professionals begin work as a law enforcement officer and then return to school, sometimes with online classes, to gain the skills and knowledge necessary to advance in their careers. Others prefer to get their bachelor’s or master’s degrees before entering the field.
While there’s no one right path for LEOs, Jackie Acosta, a Florida Tech adjunct professor with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and master’s degrees in public administration and criminal justice, recommends women “…get a college education first so they have options when looking for a job. I explain to them that a college degree gives them the option of applying for a local, state or federal government job.”