Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership

Going Beyond the Bachelor’s: Why Police Officer Education is So Important

Erik Fritsvold, PhD

Erik Fritsvold, PhD

Academic Director, M.S. Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership

Education in the law enforcement field has been long debated. In the 1960s, the Law Enforcement Education program was created as a means to improve the quality of the police force in response to public criticism. While there have been improvements in the education rates among police officers since the 1960s, many departments still only require a high school diploma or a two-year degree. As of 2010, according to a Southwestern Association of Criminal Justice paper, “only one-percent of over 12,000 local police departments require a four-year degree.”

As the profession faces increased scrutiny in the wake of recent high profile shootings such as Freddie Gray and Michael Brown, and new technologies and policing structures are introduced to departments, the need for a highly educated police force is once again being called for. So while law enforcement professionals may not have needed an advanced degree in the past, times are rapidly changing. Today, the policing field needs leaders who are equipped with 21st century skills that go beyond traditional police academy or undergraduate training.

Here are some of the top reasons why law enforcement professionals should get an advanced degree.

1. The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing Recommends It… And May Even Incentivize It

In December 2014, President Obama created the Task Force on 21st Century Policing in order to “strengthen community policing and strengthen trust among law enforcement officers and the communities they serve.” When the task force released its final recommendations in May 2015, the report was divided into six main pillars with pillar 5 being Training & Education. According to the report, “The skills and knowledge required to effectively deal with these issues [international terrorism, evolving technologies, rising immigration, changing laws, new cultural mores and a growing mental health crisis] requires a higher level of education as well as extensive and ongoing training in specific disciplines.”

The report went on to explain the importance of leadership development. “To advance American law enforcement, we must advance its leadership. To that end, the task force recommends the establishment of a top quality graduate institute of policing to provide ongoing leadership training, education, and research programs which will enhance the quality of law enforcement culture, knowledge, skills, practices and policies.“

The report includes over ten pages of recommendations surrounding higher education and learning for law enforcement professionals, including the recommendation that state and local agencies encourage and incentivize higher education. For officers entering the field or looking to grow within their departments, there has never been a better time to consider an advanced degree and take advantage of the many leadership opportunities available in this rapidly evolving field.

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2. Community Policing Is a National Priority Requiring a College Educated Police Force

Community policing has taken center stage as cities and states as well as the Federal government look for ways to improve interactions with the local community. The initiative is so important that the Federal Government has dedicated billions of dollars to hiring and training community police officers and has directed the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services along with the Community Policing Consortium to assist departments across the nation in developing and implementing community policing strategies.

For most departments, community policing requires a strategy shift. Whereas before, officers may have patrolled the streets in their squad cars with their windows rolled up, community policing requires officers to walk the streets on foot and form relationships with citizens.

Working closely and forming relationships with citizens from varied backgrounds, socioeconomic groups and ethnicities requires a very socially intelligent and culturally aware officer. Officers who have obtained their masters degree in law enforcement are much more adept and used to solving problems, thinking creatively and exhibiting open-mindedness. Furthermore, by the time an officer receives their degree, they are typically a bit older with more life and work experience making them better suited for a community-policing role.

William Terrill, a Michigan State University criminologist and co-author of the study on police attitudes found that college educated officers are less likely to use force and remarked in a Science Daily article, “‘Today’s policing,’ he said, ‘is much more about social work than it is law enforcement. It’s about resolving low-level disputes, dealing with loiterers and so on.’ Officers with experience in psychology, sociology and other college-taught disciplines might be more adept at addressing these issues.”

3. New Technologies are Rapidly Changing the Field

As new technologies are introduced to the law enforcement field, such as body cameras and biometrics, departments must ensure their officers are well trained and well versed on how to use these new tools effectively. Furthermore, social media presents a number of new challenges and opportunities for police.

For example, according to an Envisage Technologies article, “In 2012, LexisNexis researchers confirmed that 91 percent of agencies use Facebook for investigations, but they concluded that police are too comfortable using fake identities as an investigative technique, a violation of the platform’s terms of service.”

Using social media to communicate with the community, gather crime tips and leads and expand witness pools are ways social media can help police departments. Yet, when officers are not properly trained there can be dangers such as the violations seen in the LexisNexis study.

Similarly, understanding how social media and technology can affect legal proceedings, harm a case or jeopardize public safety is important for police officers working in today’s world.

4. Law Enforcement Professionals with Leadership Skills Are In Demand

There is a lack of leadership training programs in law enforcement and many traditional criminal justice programs incorporate leadership as a small portion of their curriculum. As a generation of baby boomers begin to retire and the profession is faced with a slew of new challenges such as new technologies, community policing requirements and structural changes, leaders with knowledge of 21st century issues are in great demand. Unfortunately, there is a shortage of officers who meet these criteria. For officers interested in leadership roles, there has never been a better time to go back to school for an advanced degree in law enforcement leadership.

5. Traditional Criminal Justice and Training Programs Are Out of Date and Incomprehensive

It is no secret that many training programs and university criminal justice degree programs are out of date and insufficient in preparing officers for the real world challenges they will face upon graduation. Not to mention the lack of focus on core skills related to leadership such as communication, conflict resolution and management.

According to the Task Force on 21st Century Policing final report, “Other witnesses spoke about the police education now offered by universities, noting that undergraduate criminal justice and criminology programs provide a serviceable foundation but that short courses of mixed quality and even some graduate university degree programs do not come close to addressing the needs of 21st-century law enforcement.”

Going Back to College While Working Full-TIme

Law enforcement officers looking to promote are often left with the question – how do I find time to earn my master’s degree with my predictably unpredictable work schedule and numerous family obligations? For many working in criminal justice, the answer lies in an online degree program designed for working adults – a program that allows students to balance their schedule and earn a degree in a realistic timeframe without having to drive to campus.

The University of San Diego’s online master’s degree in Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership (LEPSL) is one such program – designed specifically for experienced law enforcement professionals. Students in the program are generally over the age of 30 and interested in advancing their careers by promoting into a command staff position. A highlight of the program is the practical application of learning concepts to the daily work environment of students. Program alumni Brent Kaneyuki from the Sacramento Police Department said “I promoted to Lieutenant the same day I completed the LEPSL program. I attribute much of my recent success to the program.”

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