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

The importance of education in the law enforcement field has been long debated. While many agencies have historically required little to no college coursework for entry-level positions, research suggests a positive correlation between education and job performance at all levels of law enforcement. 

The recent calls for police reform, combined with mounting evidence that an educated police force can have numerous positive effects have sparked a nationwide conversation about raising education requirements for police officers. 

So while law enforcement professionals may not have needed an advanced degree in the past, times are rapidly changing. Today, there is a case to be made that the law enforcement 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 more law enforcement professionals should consider earning a master’s degree.

1. The Federal Government Recommends It

The Task Force on 21st Century Policing was intended to “strengthen community policing and strengthen trust among law enforcement officers and the communities they serve.” Its primary recommendations included improved “Training & Education.” 

Citing such factors as international terrorism, evolving technologies, rising immigration, changing laws, new appreciation of cultural mores and a growing mental health crisis, the report asserted that: “The skills and knowledge required to effectively deal with these issues requires a higher level of education as well as extensive and ongoing training in specific disciplines.”

The report includes more than 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 require a very socially intelligent and culturally aware officer. Research shows that officers who have a college education are much more adept and used to solving problems, thinking creatively and exhibiting open-mindedness. Clearly, officers who have completed a college degree in addition to having field experience and additional training through POST and/or their law enforcement association are particularly well-positioned for success with community policing efforts.

3. New Technologies are Rapidly Changing the Field of Law Enforcement

As new technologies are introduced to the law enforcement field, departments must ensure their officers are well trained and well versed on how to use these new tools effectively. 

New automated technologies such as artificial intelligence and predictive analytics are being used by law enforcement to both improve efficiency and enhance safety. According to Accenture, 53% of police forces expect to be using AI to help them determine risk by 2023. AI technologies can also assist with crowd control and surveillance, image enhancement, and even facial recognition, according to an article by Forbes. In the Forbes article, author Kathleen Walch from Cognilytica also states that AI is being used to spot signs of non-violent crimes in video footage that officers can then further investigate.

While these technologies are still being developed and evolving, the need for proper education on digital tools – in conjunction with law enforcement training – will be imperative for smooth adoption and implementation within an agency.

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 just a small portion of their curriculum. As a generation of baby boomers are retired or retiring and the profession is faced with a slew of new challenges such as new technologies, calls for reform, community policing requirements and structural changes, leaders with knowledge of these and other current issues facing law enforcement are in great demand. Unfortunately, there is a shortage of officers who meet these criteria.

For police officers interested in leadership roles, taking the initiative to enroll in an accredited master’s degree in law enforcement leadership may be a better option than waiting to receive department-funded training. Good leadership training programs give officers the tools they need to not only advance their careers, but also drive positive initiatives and growth in their department. As Gregory A. Warren EdD, Captain (Ret.) of the  Delaware State Police, wrote in Police Chief magazine, “great leadership drives both individual and organizational high performance, allowing an organization to realize its vision.”

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 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 while earning a degree in a realistic timeframe and 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 range from newer officers interested in eventually advancing to command staff positions to current law enforcement administrators looking to refine and improve their leadership skills. No matter what stage of their career a student is in, one highlight of the program is the practical application of learning concepts to the daily working environment of students. Program alumni Jennifer Tejada, retired chief of police from Emeryville, California said, “There’s experiential learning and there’s academic learning, and I think we need both.” Another alumnus was able to put his practical and academic learning to use right way. Brent Kaneyuki from the Sacramento Police Department said “I was 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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