A Firsthand Account on the Importance of Education for Law Enforcement
"If you have any aspirations to be a supervisor or work in management, then you definitely should get your master’s degree."
Jose Tellez is chief of the National City Police Department, located just south of San Diego and nine miles north of the Mexican border. During his 30+ years with the department, he has worked in a number of roles including homicide investigator, public information officer, SWAT commander, community sergeant and various supervisory assignments in the Patrol Division. In addition to his police work, Chief Tellez teaches a master’s level community engagement class at the University of San Diego.
Chief Tellez estimates that 15-20 percent of professionals in his agency have earned their master’s degree, while 30-40 percent have their bachelor’s degree. “Twenty years ago that number would have been less than 10 percent with a bachelor’s degree and very few with their master’s degree. The education expectations are really changing,” he explained. In fact, many departments, including the National City Police Department, encourage staff to pursue higher education by offering tuition reimbursement and salary incentives.
Why do you believe education is imporant for law enforcement professionals today?
Since I started in law enforcement 28 years ago, the profession has really evolved. The profession has changed dramatically and is now asking more of individuals when it comes to education. Law enforcement professionals today need to have all those education intangibles that a college student has, not the least of which is an inclination for continued learning.
Even now I find myself attending different classes to stay up to speed with all the issues affecting the law enforcement profession. Education today is essential — if you want to be successful in this profession, I don’t think skipping college is an option anymore. And if you have any aspirations to promote into a formal leadership role, a master’s degree is a no-brainer. There are too many things that are impacting our profession – not only the internal politics of government, but outside influences like technology, economy, community relations. I’m doing some things today in my job I had no idea I would be doing as a captain, especially in the area of technology. I had to learn those things. If you have obtained a formal degree you are better able to cope and handle the challenges that you will face as a leader in an organization.
How does someone working in criminal justice benefit from higher education?
People who seek higher education open themselves up to new possibilities — they learn new leadership theories, new ideas, etc. You don’t know what you don’t know. Education challenges you to think and consider new ideas and in the process you are also able to learn from the other individuals in your class who may have had very different experiences. This sharing of information and experiences is critical, especially in law enforcement.
We learn from each other. In our department, when one agency has a tough time we reach out and ask them what went wrong in order to try and understand the issues and avoid being in the same situation. It is important that law enforcement professionals have the communication and leadership skills necessary to reach out to other agencies and collaborate in problem-solving.
Personal and professional growth is important for everyone, not just those in leadership positions. Formal education creates a better, well-rounded individual who is able to think critically, problem-solve, and has a wider perspective. A college education gives you the ability to consider more information when making those critical decisions demanded of professionals in our field. If you are at a management level, it also gives you the intellectual tools to lead an organization down the right path.
How do communities benefit from an educated police force?
An educated officer is a better officer, who is likely to have a broader understanding of what is happening in our profession and who really understands all the nuances and issues of the community. Educated officers are able to foster better relationships with members of the community because they are able to employ tools that help to create a genuine bond between the community and the police department.
In our department, we know how important education is. We want problem solvers, critical thinkers, and good communicators. Officers today need to be well versed about what is happening in our profession and be willing to communicate and work with many different groups in an attempt to achieve a mutual understanding. For example, we sometimes invite people who are critical of law enforcement to attend our workshops and community meetings. At a minimum it creates an opportunity for dialogue and hopefully some level of understanding. That didn’t happen 25 years ago. Officers have to be open to possibilities and have a broader perspective of what is going on, not just in their communities but at a national level as well. Education facilitates that.
What advice would you give to law enforcement professionals considering an advanced education?
If you have any aspirations to be a supervisor or work in management, then you definitely should get your master’s degree. It is really a competitive process when it comes to promotions in this field. If you have a master’s degree you will stand out. Educated candidates have a broader perspective, they have strong critical thinking skills and work to generate new ideas and opportunities.
Why did you choose to join the faculty of USD’s Master of Science in Law Enforcement & Public Safety Leadership program?
I teach at USD because I truly believe in the importance of lifelong learning, especially for law enforcement professionals today. The University of San Diego’s Master of Science in Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership degree is very practical and reality-based. The program is centered around the contemporary issues that are affecting our profession today. What students learn in USD’s program can be immediately implemented in the field, that’s how applicable and timely the curriculum is. Plus, it’s an online degree program designed specifically for people who already work in law enforcement. The students in the program have family obligations and stressful jobs, but they can still make it work.