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Why police should be required to have a college degree

Fewer citizen complaints, good problem-solving and more openness to reform and best practices are among the benefits of a better-educated police force.

Chicago police officers attend a graduation and promotion ceremony at Navy Pier on November 19, 2018. Research backs the idea of requiring officers to have a college degree.
Chicago police officers attend a graduation and promotion ceremony at Navy Pier on November 19, 2018. Research backs the idea of requiring officers to have a college degree.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Following several deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police, calls are multiplying for increased training and credentialing of officers to reduce the use of excessive force.

As researchers who specialize in crime and punishment, we see five reasons why police officers should be encouraged to pursue a college degree.

1. Less likely to use violence

Research shows that, overall, college-educated officers generate fewer citizen complaints. They are also terminated less frequently for misconduct and less likely to use force.

Regarding the use of force, officers who’ve graduated from college are almost 40% less likely to use any form of force.

College-educated officers are also less likely to shoot their guns. A study of officer-involved shootings from 1990 to 2004 found that college-educated police officers were almost 30% less likely to fire their weapons in the line of duty. Additionally, one study found that police departments that required at least a two-year degree for officers had a lower rate of officers assaulted by civilians compared to departments that did not require college degrees.

2. More problem-oriented

Problem-oriented policing is a proactive strategy to identify crime problems in communities. The strategy also calls for officers to analyze the underlying causes of crime, develop appropriate responses, and assess whether those responses are working. Similarly, community-oriented policing emphasizes building relationships with citizens to identify and respond to community crime problems. Research has found that when police departments use community-policing strategies, people are more satisfied with how police serve their community and view them as more legitimate.

Community policing and problem-oriented policing require problem solving and creative thinking — skills that the college experience helps develop.

For example, internships and service-learning opportunities in college provide future police officers a chance to develop civic engagement skills. Among students who participated in a criminal justice service-learning course working with young people in the community, 80% reported a change from stereotypical assumptions that all of them would be criminals to a better understanding of them as individuals with goals and potential, some not so different from the students’ own dreams.

Among street-level officers who have the most interaction with the public, having a bachelor’s degree significantly increases commitment to community policing, and these officers tend to work more proactively.

3. Enables officers to better relate to the community

Higher education has been shown to enhance the technical training that police get in the academy or on the job.

Experiences in college have been shown to increase critical thinking, moral reasoning and openness to diversity. College also leads to more intercultural awareness. Taken together, all of these skills are essential for successful police work.

Police officers themselves say a college education improves ethical decision-making skills, knowledge and understanding of the law and the courts, openness to diversity, and communication skills.

4. Helps officers identify best practices

A college education helps officers become better at identifying quality information and scientific evidence. This in turn better enables them to more rigorously and regularly evaluate policies and practices adopted by their departments.

For example, many departments employ de-escalation tactics that aim to reduce use of force. A critical step in knowing whether an approach is achieving its intended goal is evaluating its impact. Officers who have an understanding of scientific methods, as taught in college, are better positioned to adjust their department’s policies.

5. Builds better leaders

Bringing about meaningful police reform requires transformational leadership. Higher education, including graduate degrees, can enhance the leadership potential of criminal justice professionals and support their promotion through the ranks.

Police officers with at least some college experience are more focused on promotion. It should come as little surprise, then, that police administrators, including police chiefs, are more likely to hold college and post-graduate degrees and support research-based policies.

Higher education and police reform efforts are at a critical juncture.

Educated law enforcement professionals will be better equipped to lead much-needed reform efforts. State and local agencies and governments can do more to encourage officers to seek a college degree, including through incentives, like the Nebraska Law Enforcement Education Act, which allows for a partial tuition waiver or the Quinn Bill in Massachusetts, which provides scaled bonuses depending on the degree an officer holds or tuition reimbursement scholarships like those offered by the Fraternal Order of Police. Colleges and universities can help officers acquire the skills needed to help to reestablish trust between our communities and those who are sworn to protect and serve.

Leana Bouffard is chair of the Department of Sociology at Iowa State University. Gaylene Armstrong is director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska Omaha.

A version of this article first appeared on The Conversation, a nonprofit news website.