How educated should police be?

By Christine Gardiner
Associate professor of criminal justice, Cal State Fullerton 

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.

8 Comments to "How educated should police be?"

  1. Reply Ruth December 10, 2017 at 5:51 pm

    Looking forward to reading this thanks Christine, I have been studying this topic on a small scale in the UK police.

  2. Reply Sean Lulofs January 24, 2018 at 9:33 am

    The problem with this entire hypothesis is that you are approaching it from a purely academic point of view. The mentality of a law enforcement officer is not academic, it is practical. Police officers as a whole will avoid academia but will spend literally, thousands of hours in practical training and continuing education. Some issues you must, absolutely must, consider while conducting your study are some of the following.

    State requirements regarding education. The state of Minnesota requires all police officers to attend a college in order to achieve their police officer license. The state of Louisiana has some of the worst law enforcement training in the country, if not the worst. States which are east of the Mississippi tend to be more antiquated in their tactics and techniques than those west of the Mississippi.

    You’ll need to look individual cases of those police officers which have not only been convicted but have also been accused of civil rights violations to compare if their education level has anything to do within the heat of the moment decision making.

    I could go on and on with all the different issues within the sociological and psychological aspects of law enforcement but I’ll refrain.

    An education is of value. However, it is not what makes a good police officer. A good police officer is formed from ethical behavior and critical thinking skills first. Two things academia never teaches. Then is law enforcement training. Somewhere way in the back, way, way in the back is academic education.

    • Reply Scott Ohrt February 10, 2019 at 4:35 am

      Sean, I would have to respectfully disagree with your assessment. Before I begin let me give you my bona fides. Two years civilian jailer, six years patrol officer, eight years deputy sheriff, ten years correctional officer. My years as a patrol officer overlap with two other jobs so my total years of service comes to 23 years. I have an associate of arts degree in automotive electronics, an associate degree in police science, and I have graduated from the law enforcement academy, and the DOC academy.
      First I would have to disagree with your assessment of East versus West. I can’t imagine states like, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, New York, would have inferior, antiquated tactics and techniques compared to those of, North Dakota, Wyoming, Idaho, Arizona? I believe like every state, county and city department across the nation you will find both excellent tacticians, and others lacking in all aspects of law enforcement. Even to the point of being criminal.
      It has been my experience that people with a four year degree are better equipped and in general better prepared for the job ahead. I find them to be more knowledgeable on a wider range of topics. They tend to have better critical thinking skills and come across as more empathetic. They also seem to know their way around a computer much better and are better at writing reports. I have also seen those with college degree’s recognize mental health issues faster, and are better equipped to deal with the situation.
      Many people will talk about all of the different hat’s or disciplines a peace officers has to wear. They have to be a marriage counselor, a nurse, a doctor, an emt, a firefighter, a lawyer, a psychologist, a psychiatrist, a criminal attorney, and a constitutional attorney. They have to be a teacher, a bouncer, an MMA fighter, a boxer, and an expert marksman. And if they miss the mark on anyone of those, they are subject to public ridicule. If you consider all of those skill sets, that’s A LOT of college.
      I’m not saying only those with a college degree are good peace officers. I’m generalizing my experience. I agree with the adage, “What do you call the person that graduated bottom of their class in medical school?”
      “Doctor.” BUT; I do believe college is an excellent place to start to develop ethics and critical thinking. When attending college it is on the student to show up to class everyday. Take and pass their exams without cheating, and do their homework assignments. Ethics in law enforcement is an actual class they have to take to get their diploma. College is home base to learn critical thinking. It’s when you see beyond yourself and you are challenged by professors, instructors, and fellow students to take a critical look at yourself and your belief’s. I would also recommend traveling and seeing other countries. Seeing the living conditions of other countries and seeing law enforcement interaction can be a real eye opener for many individuals.
      Our Constitution promises us, Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. We entrust peace officers with that promise to uphold the Constitution of the United States. We have them swear an oath to it. With that peace officers also swear an oath to uphold and enforce the laws of this country, their county, and their city. Which means along with protection my rights, they can also take them away.
      So, if I’m giving someone the authority, to legally take away my Pursuit of Happiness, my Liberty and ultimately my Life; I want them to be as highly educated, trained, and skilled at their job as humanly possible.
      Based upon my training, education, and experience; those with four year degree’s in sociology, psychology, criminal justice etcetera, have a better efficacy than those that don’t have any college whatsoever.
      Best of regards, stay safe.

  3. Reply lyndsay March 25, 2019 at 7:16 pm

    They need HIGHER education AND life AND practical experience (age and training included) for police officers to be able to obtain the level of power they are freely given.

  4. Reply Sandra April 8, 2020 at 5:56 am

    They must at least hold a college degree, because it has been found that college educated cops are more well-rounded individuals; meaning that they are much better quipped for taking on leader roles. Colleges most encourage students to thing logically and critically, which is something that is not taught in the police academy. Along, with police officers with higher education degrees have much better understanding of the community and all its issues, and are able to foster relationships with the people they serve.

  5. Reply Catherine Payne May 18, 2020 at 7:36 am

    Too many police/sheriff officers seem to shoot first and ask questions afterward. The carnage they regularly cause in the communities of people of color are atrocious yet they almost always manage to get away with murder, because they supposedly feared for their own lives. Why should local authorities hire people who are so often frightened? Advanced degrees plus psychiatric evaluations should be mandatory for all applicants and deadly force a last resort.

  6. Reply Erin Hesser June 10, 2020 at 11:07 pm

    Is this study complete and published yet? I am very interested to read it!

  7. Reply Tina Carrigan June 18, 2020 at 1:39 am

    Very interesting. I do not think you must be a college graduAte to be a good officer. Look at how many people do all kinds if productive work, have the ability to assess and have a fine foundation to contribute.

    What is important is the actual hiring and interviewing process. A great and sensitive recruiter knows how to draw out a person and find out their attitudes and proclivities. We need to avoid hiring “macho men” with big egos. Ask candidates about their lives growing up. Also every officer should have a solid understanding of conflict resolution skills and the desire to collaborate in solving problems.

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