Formal Education in Law Enforcement: Whose Responsibility Is It?

by | August 23, 2017

Law enforcement is an increasingly complex industry. In what other fields do the practitioners wield power and authority over life or death, freedom or confinement? In other professions where decisions and actions have similar repercussions—medicine or law—the practitioners must not only have advanced college degrees, but also go through years of “in-service” training. But formal education requirements in law enforcement vary widely. Many agencies simply require a high school diploma. It’s troublesome that we continue to undervalue college-level police education.

Accessibility to higher education programs has never been greater, so it’s not lack of options preventing our officers from obtaining education. Perhaps we’re not doing enough as administrators to encourage them?

Generational Differences

Making sweeping statements about generational differences is always tricky, but when it comes to police education, I think we can outline some broad changes. Old-schoolers value a “some teach, and some do” attitude. In my experience, they tend to look down upon those of us who value formal education. Their attitude is, “Why learn about it, when you can get out there and do it?”

Starting in the late 1990s, we can begin to see the emergence of a transitional generation within law enforcement. This generation’s attitude toward police education can best be summed up as, “I am willing to take the educational journey but it is the administration’s job to provide me the opportunity.” I belong to this law enforcement generation, but I entered the industry later in life, and my core values probably are probably more old-school—“Pull yourself up by your bootstraps and tackle the objective.”

Thus, I admit to being a rare bird, valuing both old school norms and a more modern philosophical value involving the importance of higher education. I believe we are beginning to see a movement in which younger officers value higher education and are more willing to pursue degrees, with or without administration support. But we have a long way to go; most officers still believe the department is responsible for their formal education.

Therein lies the question: When it comes to police education, who holds the bag—administrators or the individual officer?

Cultural Shift

The obvious answer to the question is, both the officer and the administration. But we are talking about a change in culture, and typically such movements must come from the bottom up.

Consider intoxicated driving as an example. Legislation to control the problem was a short-term fix; actual change came via grassroots social movements (think Mothers Against Drunk Driving) and changing social values. Socially stigmatizing the behavior of driving drunk affected long-term positive change. Legislation merely held the fort down until social values changed.

Now let’s apply this to law enforcement. Currently, officers willing to allocate financial and emotional resources to higher education are often stigmatized. More precisely, there is a “why bother?” attitude. That attitude is present at both the line and administrative levels. But what would happen if internal law enforcement culture placed more value on higher education, stigmatizing those who are unwilling to educate themselves? Law enforcement administrators could do their part by encouraging or even requiring officers to obtain higher education. But cultural change must also come from the grass roots. Line-level staff are the future leaders, and those individuals who pick up the educational ball will create long-term social change.

The Money Argument

If you have made it this far, you’re probably questioning my credibility to speak on the topic of education as it relates to law enforcement. I started my law enforcement educational career back in the late 1980s but quit college before the completion of my bachelor’s degree to help manage a family-run trucking company. Law enforcement was a passion of mine, so well into my trucking career I made a course correction and attended a law enforcement academy, subsequently earning employment as a reserve deputy with a rural county sheriff’s office.

As I was working my way through the ranks, the internet was invented. I took advantage of the opportunity and during long, lonely patrol shifts, I earned my bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from a four-year college. I cannot count the times I heard fellow deputies complain about being bored. I shrugged my shoulders and wondered how that could be so. My administration allowed me to study on-duty as long as my calls for service were handled and the coursework related to my profession. But there was no real administrative push to pursue education.

In fact, old-school administrators often questioned my efforts, saying education was not a sound investment. I often heard, “Look where I made it without college.” To them, you wouldn’t earn enough because of your degree to justify the time and money spent earning it.

This is where I think many officers and administrators go awry when considering the value of college-level police education. In fact, higher education can mean increased earnings for cops. As a result of my education, I earned my police officer standards and training certificates at an accelerated rate—and certificates equal money in the industry.

But money should never be the primary motivating factor for officers to pursue higher education. Instead, we should focus as a culture on the intrinsic value. Successfully earning a degree or other educational program makes us better decision-makers. It demonstrates our ability to start and finish a long, difficult task. It opens additional career opportunities, and positions us better for retirement. Administrators can and should emphasize these long-term benefits over and above the short-term economic gains formal education can bring.

For me, starting and finishing a task is useful; whatever I learned in the process was icing. With education, my career flourished, and I made it to the undersheriff’s position. Although I had to put education on hold for a while as an administrator, I soon longed to pick up the education torch. I applied to and was accepted into a graduate program at a state college. I was an undersheriff and a student but also a husband and a father. Again, my motivation was grounded in starting and finishing a task (bachelor’s to master’s to doctorate), not earning more money. Two years later I graduated with a master’s degree. Most recently, I’ve developed a desire to complete the journey, and I am currently working through a doctoral program at a private institution.

A Shared Responsibility

Earlier I asked who holds the bag when it comes to police education—administrators or the individual officer? New officers are increasingly willing to educate themselves, but they often expect the department to be responsible for their formal education. In fact, this is not far from the truth. Holding administrators responsible is necessary. Departments should (and some do) establish incentives encouraging officers to obtain advanced degrees. One example is tuition reimbursement programs.

But accountability and the drive to seek out knowledge must come from the individual. At our core, we must value personal advancement. No manner of monetary incentives can compare with that. Mark my words: Officers who embark on the educational journey will be the future leaders of our industry.

JAMES CONCANNON retired as a sergeant with the Sierra County (CA) Sheriff’s Office, where he served since 2001. From 2011 to 2015, he served as Undersheriff, then returned to the sergeant rank after an administration change. Concannon earned his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Sacramento State University in California and his master’s in criminology, law and society from the University of California-Irvine. He is also a professional services representative for Lexipol, helping law enforcement agencies implement policy and training.

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