Several years ago, I wrote an article based on my dissertation in which I made the comment that Orange County police officers were “particularly well-educated” — many with a bachelor’s or master’s degree.
It was obvious to me that they were. I had worked with them in California. I talked to them. I knew them. This was not even a question to me. But an editor challenged me on it, saying, “How do you know this? Please prove this statement.”
The request seemed easy enough and off I went in search of the data that I was sure would show me that Orange County officers were in fact highly educated. There was one problem. There were no such data. Nobody in the private sector had studied police officers and higher education with any depth in decades.
I knew right then and there that I must find it out. I started initially with a survey of all local law enforcement agencies in California. About half of the agencies replied, and the results were intriguing, but I needed more.
After consulting with Jim Bueermann, president of the Police Foundation, we decided to work together and conduct a study of the entire nation. I distributed surveys, which were completed by 958 agencies. It was exciting because it encompassed departments of all sizes, including 842 which employ fewer than 250 officers and 116 which employ more than 250.
I am excited to announce that the results are in, which we are showing in our report, “Policing around the nation: Education, Philosophy, and Practice” – which we just released Thursday.
About one third (30.2 percent) of police officers in the United States have a four-year college degree. A little more than half (51.8 percent) have a two-year degree, while 5.4 percent have a graduate degree.
Let me first say that any single number in each of these cases doesn’t tell us anything because our nation’s departments are vast and different. Some agencies have many more college-educated officers and some have many fewer.
Municipal agencies, large agencies, agencies with higher education standards for entry, agencies which have collective bargaining, agencies headed by a chief/sheriff with a college degree (especially master’s or above), and those in the Northeast tend to have more officers with college degrees while others have fewer.
For policing leaders who read this report and think they want to increase the proportion of officers in their agency with a college degree, I would suggest requiring college experience for promotion, providing financial incentives to officers to earn a college degree, and offering a competitive salary and benefits.
While lobbying the state legislature to change standards can also be an effective strategy, it should only be done in consultation with and consideration of all other local law enforcement agencies in the state. Raising standards at the state level might be beneficial for many agencies, but other departments could find their recruiting efforts obliterated.
I should explain that this report DOES NOT answer the question: Are college-educated officers better officers. It’s also important to understand that this report does not say that every officer must have a college education. That must be a jurisdictional decision. Access to college should be factored in to the decision (almost all agencies have a college within easy commuting distance).
This study is the first of its kind to look at this issue since 1988. Obviously, the world is a different place. Significant changes on multiple levels have taken place both in law enforcement agencies and with the public. For me, what is particularly exciting is we now have data to try and assess how higher education can be relevant to the practice of policing. That’s a big deal because we have the potential now to actually conclude whether police departments and/or communities are served better by officers with four-year degrees, thereby also having the potential to improve policing in this country, both for the public but also for officers.
And that is where things get exciting. This is the first step — gathering the data. Now comes the point where we get to analyze it. I already have several specific topics planned to examine with collaborators.
One of the questions that I am interested in is, when looking at the distribution of officers with a higher education background, how are their numbers spread out when it comes to supporting high- and low-income communities?
If there is no difference between how officers with a college degree and those with a high school diploma do their job, then it doesn’t make a difference.
But if we believe that college does lead to better policing, and those officers are more often serving in areas that are higher income, it leads to an important question: Are those communities being policed differently, as in, better than poorer communities?
As you can see, there are some meaty issues to dig into. Now comes the time as a researcher where we figure out our theories and then test them with statistics. In the end, what matters is we have the data. Now it is time to determine what it truly means.
Christine Gardiner is an associate professor of criminal justice at California State University, Fullerton. She received her Ph.D. in criminology, law and society from University of California, Irvine, and her M.Phil. in criminology from Cambridge University. She currently serves as a senior research fellow for the Police Foundation. She is the co-author (with Matthew Hickman) of “Policing for the 21st Century: Realizing the Vision of Police in a Free Society.” Her research has been published in Criminal Justice Policy Review, Policing, Federal Probation, and Journal of Drug Issues. Beyond her academic experience, she also has experience as a sheriff’s department crime analyst, a police dispatcher, an intern probation officer and a police explorer.