Why Aspiring Law Enforcement Leaders Need More Than a Criminal Justice Degree
Many law enforcement professionals have earned a criminal justice associate’s or bachelor’s degree, or maybe just received training through a police academy or their department. In either case, few law enforcement professionals today have studied legal theory or taken a class in court procedures — never mind learning about budgeting and hiring. As roles change and the industry evolves, leaders in the public safety field will need to know more than the criminal justice basics.
In order to be the most effective leaders, law enforcement professionals will need to understand how the criminal justice system works as a whole, beyond just their duties as a police officer. Furthermore, leaders are often times managers as well, where business and employee relations’ are crucial.
Why a Thorough Understanding of the Law and Legal Theory Matters
It sounds obvious that law enforcement professionals should have to know the law. But the law is complicated and voluminous and most police officers receive only limited training. Even law enforcement professionals who obtain a criminal justice bachelor’s degree often graduate without a comprehensive understanding of legal theory or the ins and outs of the court system.
So why does this matter? For one, when police make mistakes in their interpretation or enforcement of the law they are in affect breaking the very laws they are supposed to be enforcing. According to the Emory University Law Journal, when police have a better and more thorough understanding of the law, they make fewer mistakes. In their article, Police Mistakes of Law, it is stated,
“When police stop or arrest an individual based on a mistaken legal understanding, they not only violate their sworn duty to enforce the law but also effectuate an unlawful deprivation of physical liberty.”
The article goes on to say,
“What is needed, in short, is a substantive law counterpart to the Fourth Amendment procedural law mandate of Mapp v. Ohio, now fifty years old, incentivizing departments to teach, and rank-and-file police to learn, the scope and content of the laws that they are charged with enforcing.”
Further, it is not uncommon for a law enforcement professional to be called as a defendant in a lawsuit at least once in their career. According to American Military University, an officer can be held liable if he or she was, “Enforcing a law that they knew or reasonably knew to be unconstitutional depriving an individual of constitutional rights.” This means that an officer without a thorough understanding of the law could be held liable in a lawsuit, putting him/her at risk along with the police department they work for.
Finally, understanding the laws and legal issues central to leadership in law enforcement and public safety, along with possessing a thorough knowledge of the legacy of constitutional law that shapes law enforcement policy today, is imperative for effective leadership in law enforcement, where the demands and expectations are much higher than in the lower ranks of the police force.
The Importance of Business Skills for Law Enforcement Leaders
Leaders in law enforcement need to possess a number of qualities and skills as they are charged with managing and running entire departments and organizations. This requires that police chiefs and higher-ups possess, among other qualities, the business skills necessary to effectively budget, manage, hire, negotiate and plan. As stated by Brynn Caless in Policing at the top: The roles, values and attitudes of chief police officers,
“Being a modern chief constable is less about policing and more about being a business leader. We may have reached the point where an outsider from industry is better equipped to be a chief constable than a career officer, because they could be more objective in setting priorities and using resources.”
Understanding how to effectively hire, train and budget are necessary skills not typically obtained through a criminal justice master’s degree or traditional police training. And yet they are vitally important to the success of a law enforcement professional in a leadership position and consequently to the success of his/her department.
During the search for a new police chief in Grand Rapids Michigan, The Grand Rapid’s Press printed an article, “5 traits we’d like to see in Grand Rapids’ new police chief.” Number one and five in the list of desired traits was leadership and management. “Strong management skills, like leadership, are critical. A good manager establishes rigorous expectations, holds “everyone” accountable and approaches budget realities with innovation,” stated The Grand Rapids Press.
Similarly, “In an article entitled ‘Free Consultancy’ in Police Review it was observed that Candidates on the Strategic Command CCourse now have to show that they ‘can lead forces with cost effectiveness at the forefront of their minds’ (Hitchcock, 2010, p. 6),” according to Brynn.
And in The Police Chief article titled, Preparing Leaders for Law Enforcement, it was noted that many agency leaders are now being selected through “nontraditional” means in response to the call for new leadership. “Command staff and agency CEOs are being selected not from the ranks of deputy chiefs but from the cadre of lower level managers who exhibit leadership talent,” says The Police Chief. In order to identify candidates with leadership potential agencies are relying on a tool developed by the U.S. Department of Personnel Management to assess Federal agency candidates. This tool determines executive core qualifications (ECQs), which are used to identify the “competencies and characteristics needed to build a leadership culture.” There are 5 ECQs, one of which is Business Acumen, proving the point that business skills are highly critical in leadership positions, be it in law enforcement or any other sector.
In order to acquire the legal knowledge and business skills required of today’s leaders, law enforcement professionals need to consider the benefits of obtaining an advanced degree. The University of San Diego offers a Master of Science in Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership that is conducted completely online. This multifaceted law enforcement degree examines leadership, management, organizational theory, critical issues, community assessment, budget and finance, public safety law, conflict resolution and additional criminal justice topics in a format that allows for collaboration with other law enforcement professionals from agencies around the country.