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Street Smart vs. Book Smart

The debate over higher education for American police officers began as early as 1829 when Robert Peele made reference to the need for a professionally trained police force. In the early 1900s, August Vollmer, the father of modern policing, proposed police have college degrees. The President's Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice supported Peele in 1967 stating higher education requirements will significantly improve the quality of policing. Soon after, in 1973, the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals requested a national minimum education level of at least a four-year college degree. Since that time, numerous agencies and organizations have debated the advantages and disadvantages of higher education for police officers.

Whether or not your or your significant other's job requires a degree for hiring or promotion, the benefits of advanced education are exponential. Not only does taking classes offer the chance to grow intellectually, taking classes you’re interested in can be fun. Colleges offer a variety of courses and different ways of delivery, including on-campus and distance courses. Many degrees can be gained completely on the internet. Unlike in the past, the quality of the colleges and the degrees has increased.

Many studies support higher education for police officers, encouraging the disciplines beyond what is actually taught. In Stoning the Keepers at the Gate, Lawrence N. Blum, Ph.D. describes several characteristics that formulate a good officer. A look at a few of these qualities along with how higher education supports these offers an incentive to take a few classes or get a degree.

Integrity and Responsibility

"Officers with integrity demonstrate a self-initiated willingness to be responsible in how they work and live," Blum states. Completing class work, especially when juggling work and a family, requires a huge amount of determination. Students need to keep track of assignments and take responsibility for the quality of their work. Avoiding plagiarism and doing original work also takes integrity.

"Responsibility... indicates a commitment to fulfill the obligations they take upon themselves," explains Blum. College is a big undertaking. It requires time commitments, and if a degree is the ultimate purpose, a focus on what needs to be completed when. By registering for a class, completing the requisite work and studying for tests, a person shows they can follow through with what they start. Even taking a few semesters off because of other obligations shows the ability to assess priorities and rearrange things when necessary.


First off, maturity is not the same as life experience. Some people show maturity at a very young age, while some are still vastly immature after their hair turns gray. Maturity, according to Blum, "refers to how a person thinks, how he or she uses judgment, and whether or not his or her decisions are based upon objective facts rather than internal emotional states or needs." He further suggests, "Mature officers will base their approach to the individual upon their accurate analysis of the circumstance they have encountered and the resources that are available. They will also be capable of and predisposed to postponing their need for personal gratification until the appropriate time and condition."

Along with learning analytical skills in college, students often complete work outside their comfort zone, such as public speaking or writing a report on an unfamiliar subject. Research-based courses expect students to be able to sort through material and judge objectively. Another aspect of this falls into the realm of broader experience. In college, students are exposed to a wide variety of people and ideas, many in conflict with their own experiences and values. Being able to participate in a group critique grants the opportunity to listen to the other person's arguments and evaluate the merit of the work objectively and not based on one’s own feelings about the person or the idea.


Blum says, "The officer with effective skills in adaptation can demonstrate controlled responses during emotionally charged and possibly dangerous conditions to maintain order and calm." For an ability to become second nature, and, therefore be useful during a chaotic event, an individual needs to have experience using it frequently under normal conditions. In college, the variety of classes required and the diversity of other students and staff allow students to learn how to adapt to a number of situations. The ability to "decide how to best respond" to situations occurs in written work, as well as, group discussions.


Probably one of the most necessary skills an officer should have, communication is a major acquisition in college. Officers must learn to communicate in a wide spectrum of ways, including exerting command presence and the ability to mediate. Cognizance of both verbal and non-verbal communications is essential. In police work, officers communicate in writing, via reports, and orally with citizens, co-workers and supervisors. Blum states, "Officers must be assertive and demonstrate effective interpersonal skills in all of their contacts with people. Officers must not experience emotional discomfort in anticipation of an interpersonal encounter, and they must not demonstrate an accompanying tendency to become anxious or insecure in how they deal with others."

English classes improve a student’s ability to use language clearly and concisely. Taking a foreign language allows them to communicate with a wider range of people. Public speaking classes increase confidence in the ability to communicate. Blum also explains officers need "the ability to receive, assess and integrate information from the environment." College courses can teach officers to do this successfully.

While the debate about whether an agency should require college credits continues, the benefits individual officers can gain from taking classes is great. Students grow personally and professionally and can take great pride in achieving a degree. Many of the courses are fun, especially when chosen due to interest. Another benefit can be gained when looking at what to do after police work. In a list of Tips for Career Management, Ellen Kirschman, Ph.D. writes in I Love a Cop, "Continue with your education and encourage your spouse to get a broad-based education that qualified him or her for other fields." You can even take classes together. After all, electives include everything from weigh-lifting to dancing, from art history to cooking and from inter-personal communications in relationships to understanding your teenager. A world of knowledge exists and it’s easier than ever to access it. Even when you feel you or your spouse is working 20 hours a day, adding personal enrichment activities to your life can make you physically, emotionally and mentally healthier. It's even better when you learn how to make an awesome cheesecake in the process.