Law Enforcement Agencies Require a College Degree?
There have been continuous debates over the last decade concerning the educational requirements of new recruits for law enforcement agencies. How important is formal education compared to 'street smarts' and common sense? Does a two-year or four-year college degree make a cadet a better officer on the force and in the community he serves? Does such a requirement limit or hinder the hiring of minorities who might otherwise make fine officers serving and defending their communities as well if not better than an educated officer. These are but a few of the questions and concerns communities all across the country are debating regarding the requirements for new hires among law enforcement agencies. However, many agencies have gone forward with new educational requirements that are now effective in their communities.
The federal government, citing the advantages of college education, provided funds throughout the 1970's for thousands of police officers to go to college. In 1973, a federal task force recommended a four-year college requirement and projected that such a policy would be widespread by the 1980's. However, that didn't happen, although many departments do provide extra pay for officers who earn college credits and degrees, and some require college degrees for promotions (Mooney 1991).
In Leonia, a bedroom community in New Jersey that takes pride on being a bastion of artists and scholars, the requirement for a police officer is a four-year college degree. Only a third of the officers have degrees next door in Englewood, where police must deal with a crime rate twice as high. Englewood is like the vast majority of forcers across the state that only requires a high school diploma and courses in a county police academy (Mooney 1991). Many state and county police officials feel communities should reexamine how educated and well-schooled their officers should be as the role of police officers grows increasingly sensitive and complex. Ronald Calissi, director of the Bergen County Police and Fire Academy states, "I don't think we can say anymore that this is a blue-collar profession. We must have higher standards" (Mooney 1991).
Wayne Fisher, deputy director of the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice contends, "There are college requirements to be teachers, social workers, and many other services. A police officer's job certainly equals those" (Mooney 1991). Moreover, police officials state that the strongest arguments for more education are the cultural exposure, thinking skills, and maturity gained in college. According to Calissi, college-honed communication skills are vital as well. He states that thousands of rookie police officers have trained at the academy and despite a course in writing, some officers "border on the functionally illiterate" (Mooney 1991). Many supervisors say the education level of an officer is evident in their crime and accident reports, such as Englewood Sgt. Arthur O'Keefe who says he spends much of his time correcting officers' reports (Mooney 1991).
In 1996, New York City implemented a 60 college credit requirement for its officers, although two years' military experience could substitute for the college credit requirement. Police executives contend that "officers who have completed higher levels of education take few sick days, and officers who are hired when they are older than 21 tend to have fewer psychological or substance-abuse problems" (Murphy 1996). Although, police officials said that life and work experience were just as much an asset, they assert that people with college credit tend to be older and better prepared to handle police work (Murphy 1996).
Two of the most critical issues facing law enforcement agencies today is recruiting and selecting qualified entry-level law enforcement officers. With the ever-changing technology used to commit and combat crimes coupled with the added public's demands, police administrators need to be careful in selecting qualified candidates (Dale 1996). "If we have 50 applicants, we'll hire about five officers out of that, so you can see how hard the process is," said Deputy Chief Mike Taylor of Grand Prairie, Texas (Abrahamson 2000). Today's officers require a wider base of knowledge in order to handle the diversity of calls, investigations, and act as first responders to situations. Therefore, there is an increasing demand for entry-level officers to possess post-secondary education (Dale 1996).
September 11th has put added pressures on agencies across the country to reexamine hiring policies. "Law enforcement sensibilities and an ability to decipher street jargon are critical" (Warrick 2001). "Recruitment programs at Customs, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies are being driven by the war on terrorism and by efforts to improve homeland defense" (Barr 2002). Agencies are especially interested in recruits with computer science skills, physical sciences, military intelligence and foreign languages (Barr 200). For the last several years Minnesota has required that its peace officers be licensed through the Peace Officers Standards and Training, POST, board. "Recruits are required to complete at least 2 years of college with a degree or concentration in law enforcement science, complete an 8-week police officer skills program, and pass a state licensing examination" (Dale 1996).
In 1998, only three major law-enforcement departments, Tulsa, Oklahoma, Portland, Oregon, and the Moltnomah County Sheriff's Department in suburban Portland, required recruits to have four years of college (Trugman 1998). However, more and more communities, large and small are reexamining their recruiting qualifications and methods, such as working with area colleges and universities to incorporate internship programs, thus creating better trained, better educated, better paid and better equipped police officers that will lead to a more professional police department (Trugman 1998).
The debate over whether police officer applicants should be required to possess a college degree will most likely continue for years. However, few would question the value of education in terms of creating a better-prepared and more qualified workforce for the future.
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