Fixing American Policing
Adam J. McKee
CHAPTER 9: Purpose
This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.
To be effective in the long term, officers must maintain a high level of morale and purpose in performing their duties. If officers “burn out,” they may engage in their duties, much like a factory worker who watches the clock on Friday afternoon.
Most officers begin their careers filled with drive and enthusiasm but wind up disenchanted. As the President’s Task Force (2015) suggested, the mental and physical health of officers should be a top priority for every department. The public’s expectation of police places officers in a stressful work environment. Public understanding of the limitations of police capabilities to deal with community problems would serve as an inoculant to disillusionment by officers. Such community understanding and support are much more likely under a partnership model than they are under a traditional domination model.
The Urban Police Function
There is a persistent myth about police in the United States, and many officers like and perpetuate the myth: The job of the police is to “catch bad guys.” While dealing with serious crime is one of the most dangerous aspects of police work, it is by no means the only duty that officers perform. The excerpt below shows the breadth of the police function, as seen by the American Bar Association.
ABA Standard 1-2.2. Major current responsibilities of police
In assessing appropriate objectives and priorities for police service, local communities should initially recognize that most police agencies are currently given responsibility, by design or default, to:
(a) identify criminal offenders and criminal activity and, where appropriate, to apprehend offenders and participate in subsequent court proceedings;
(b) reduce the opportunities for the commission of some crimes through preventive patrol and other measures;
(c) aid individuals who are in danger of physical harm;
(d) protect constitutional guarantees;
(e) facilitate the movement of people and vehicles;
(f) assist those who cannot care for themselves;
(g) resolve conflict;
(h) identify problems that are potentially serious law enforcement or governmental problems;
(i) create and maintain a feeling of security in the community;
(j) promote and preserve civil order; and
(k) provide other services on an emergency basis.
The Police and Serious Crime
It is a mistake to conclude that dedication to community policing means that police departments are no longer concerned with serious crime. Indeed, dealing with felonies will always be a core mission of the police. No one can rationally dispute this. Indeed, professional crime-fighting enjoys wide public support as the basic strategy of policing. The public obviously wants everything that can be done to be done when it comes to preventing serious crime and bringing perpetrators to justice. In contrast, other proposed strategies, such as problem-solving (as a stand-alone policing strategy) or community policing, appear (on a superficial level) to blunt this important focus. Of course, if these strategies were to leave the community more susceptible to victimization, they would be unacceptable alternatives to traditional policing. In assessing the value of alternative police strategies in controlling crime, however, the public must avoid being misled by rhetoric or mere “lip service” to the goal. Good policy decision making must depend on evidenced effectiveness in accomplishing the goal.
Conventionally, “serious crime” emphasizes three characteristics of offenses. The most important is physical violence. Death, bloody wounds, crippling injuries, even cuts and bruises increase the severity of a crime. In fact, the various degrees of crime (Aggravated, First Degree, Second Degree, etc.) are usually defined in legal codes by the extent of injury or the potential dangerousness of the act, such as the heightened risk when guns are involved in criminal acts.
Sexual crimes are especially loathsome in our society, and a sexual component serves to make any violent act more serious. Crime victims often suffer property losses as well as pain and suffering. Financial losses count in determining the seriousness of an offense. As a general rule, society generally considers physical attacks, sexual and nonsexual, as far more serious than attacks on property.
The second feature of serious crime concerns the magnitude of the victim’s losses in both economic and human terms. For example, a murder or a permanent and disfiguring injury is considered worse than one that produces only bruises and fears. An armored car heist netting millions is deemed more serious than a purse snatching. A third important feature concerns the relationship between offenders and victims. Somewhat perversely, crimes against strangers are viewed as more grievous than crimes committed in the context of continuing relationships. The reason is, at least in part, that the threat to the community from capricious predators is more expansive than the threat from offenders who limit their targets to family and friends.
Professional crime-fighting, as it always has in modernity, currently relies principally on three tactics:
- vehicle patrol;
- rapid response to calls for service; and
- retrospective investigation of crime
Over the past century, police responsiveness has been enhanced by connecting police to citizens by phones, radios, and vehicles and (more recently) by aligning police officer schedules and patrol areas to forecasted calls for service. These methods have not remained completely static. Incremental improvements have been made. Screening calls for service, targeting patrol, and developing technology (e.g., automated fingerprint systems, computer-aided dispatch, computerized criminal records, etc.) have played a role in improving the status quo.
Although these tactics have resulted in incremental improvements, they have been attacked within policing and outside of policing for being reactive rather than proactive. When a police strategy is reactive, it, by definition, has failed to prevent crime.
It is unrealistic, of course, to think that police can ever completely be rid of its reactive role. The police must go where crimes have occurred and when citizens have summoned them, regardless of the type of agency they claim to be. Problematically, under the traditional paradigm, police keep their distance from the public, and thereby, the antiquated logic goes, retain their integrity. Prior generations thought that this aloof status would mean that officers do not develop the kind of relationships with citizens that could prejudice their responses to crimes.
Many police departments have devised proactive tactics to deal with crime problems that could not be handled through conventional reactive methods. In narcotics enforcement, organized crime, and vice enforcement, for example, there are no direct victims to summon the police. In these areas, police forces have developed special units that rely on undercover investigations, confidential informants, and clandestine surveillance rather than responding to calls for service. In the arena of juvenile justice, some police departments have created athletic leagues, formed partnerships with schools to deal with drug use, truancy, and so forth. Many departments now employ School Resource Officers (SROs) to consolidate these tasks and to deal with unthinkable dangers, such as active shooter incidents. It is not objectively accurate, therefore, to describe modem policing as entirely reactive.
Nevertheless, the critique of the police as being overly reactive has merit. The police (on average) can do more to proactively control serious crime than they now accomplish. No Doubt, technological breakthroughs that will (sometimes incrementally and sometimes dramatically) improve the effectiveness of criminal investigations. The greatest potential for improved crime control, however, does not lie in the continued enhancement of response times, patrol tactics, and investigative techniques. Instead, improved crime control can be achieved by
- diagnosing and addressing problems in communities that produce serious crimes;
- nurturing closer relations with communities to facilitate crime-solving; and
- augmenting “self-defense capabilities” within communities.
To the extent that problem-solving and community strategies of policing direct attention to and equip officers to tap local knowledge and capacity to control crime, they will be useful in controlling serious crime.
An important hallmark of community policing is the idea that prevention is better than reaction after the fact. In looking for strategies to prevent serious crime, police should look for what is called precipitating causes. As I argued elsewhere in this book, it may not be very productive for police to consider macro theoretical causes of crime. Things such as poverty, poor education, lack of economic opportunity, and so forth may be important policy concerns, and they don’t generally provide actionable intelligence to police.
The idea that police are “men of action” holds much truth. Despite the sexist connotations of the cliché, officers are called upon to deal with real events involving real people in real-time. That suggests that the reality of police work often means that officers are searching for action verbs—things they can do to solve someone’s immediate problem. This is why crime scientists insist that the immediate precipitating causes of crime be the focus of police efforts. Many problems faced by police boil down to four common precipitating factors:
- relationship frustration
- drugs and alcohol
- dangerous people
- situations that encourage crime (criminogenic situations)
Because our justice system is based on classical economic theories of crime—cost-benefit analysis—there tends to be a focus on the offender and the offender’s decision-making process. This individual culpability focus necessitates a reactivate posture from police and thus is among the least effective vantage points from which to view any crime problem. In other words, when we focus on the criminal, by definition, we’ve failed to prevent crime. Police can do very little to change the disposition of those predisposed to commit crimes, so they tend to focus on “catching the bad guy” after the fact. Prevention, on the other hand, requires that we focus on other things that the traditional model of policing usually ignores. That is not to say that predators are not a precipitating cause of predatory crime; community policing requires that the willing offender is one of several precipitating causes of crime. Control of proven criminals is important, especially dangerous ones, but this falls mostly outside of the police scope of practice.
All veteran police officers know that there are familiar people and familiar addresses that they will have to visit frequently. When a particular location creates an ongoing situation that precipitates calls for service, they are referred to (in recent times) as “hot spots.” Every community has that special bar where you can be guaranteed to witness a fight any Saturday night. Areas around popular teen “hangouts” might experience frequent calls for disorderly conduct, vandalism, and public drunkenness. Particular residential addresses may become known for recurring acts of domestic violence. Simply put, in every community, there are consistent times, places, and people that increase the probability of both minor and serious crimes.
Many large police departments have realized this pattern, and use “crime mapping” to identify hot spots and intercede by increasing police presence at those locations. An increased police presence has been shown to reduce crimes in such areas, but it is generally only effective when police are present. As soon as officers leave, the mix is right for crime to return to the location. The better solution is to permanently alter the criminogenic situation. This is an aspect of the community problem-solving aspect of community policing.
Problematic bars can change management practices to eliminate thee factors that precipitate crimes. Dark alleys can be fenced off, and security lighting can be added. Crime is specific, and the removal of precipitants to crime requires individual-level analysis and custom solutions. Many crime types follow general patterns that are very useful to know, but customized solutions require a level of expertise that very few police officers currently have. This needs to change, but we can’t hold individual line officers accountable. We don’t educate officers to do this work, and we don’t reward them for doing it. The proximate cause of reactivity is a lack of education and bad policy.
Drugs and Alcohol
It should come as no surprise that a very high percentage of those arrested for crimes are high on drugs, drunk, or both. It may be slightly more surprising that often victims are in the same boat. Simply put, drugs and alcohol are very common precipitants of crime, and key correlates of victimization. There are several different theories as to why this is so. Some drugs are known to stimulate the person who uses them (e.g., cocaine, methamphetamines), and that stimulates the person to act in a criminal way. Along those same lines, certain drugs are known to impair cognition, and that reduces people’s normal inhibitions. It is no surprise that drunks do stupid things. Another important link between drugs and crime is the powerful force of addiction. Addicts that can’t afford their drugs with money gained from legitimate means are willing to obtain money for drugs (or drugs directly) through illegitimate means. Methamphetamine and heroin are classic examples of addictions that drive crime, and the so-called “opioid epidemic” has underscored similar effects with prescription pills (that are chemically similar to heroin).
Another family of theories has a more sociological bent. The basic idea is that drug use gradually “demoralizes” people by putting them at odds with the social norms of abiding by the law. It also puts them into contact with others that tend to disregard the law, and that in turn weakens the social controls of “normal society.” These theories tend to describe those that are deeply involved with drugs and drug subcultures.
A tangential theoretical perspective that I wish to point out is that people that high and drunk make particularly good victims. Someone who is “messed up” may not be fully cognizant of what is going on around them, and they make dangerous choices because their cognition is impaired.
Tragically, one of the single biggest precipitants of the serious crime is the presence of (often romantic) relationships. Marital and dating relationships are, by definition, emotional, and unmet expectations from one’s partner often result in disappointment and frustration that can lead to anger. Especially when infidelity is involved, this anger can explode into violence. Most states have laws that require the police and courts to identify and punish a “primary aggressor” in domestic violence situations, but often the reality of the toxic relationship is that both parties acted irrationally and were driven by strong emotions.
Romantic relationships may be especially volatile because of the strength of emotions associated with them, but they are by no means the only relationships that can precipitate crime. Employers and employees, neighbors, business partners, and a host of other relationships can spark strong emotions and retaliatory violence, given the right dispositions and circumstances. Often, there are signs that explosive acts of serious violence are developing across time. Appropriate interventions in minor community conflicts have the potential to prevent serious crimes of violence down the road.
Under traditional models of policing, officers would not take the time to deal with a loud argument that caused a concerned neighbor to call 911. If no serious crime has been committed and no arrest can be made, traditional officers are likely to take no action and move on to the next call for service. Conventional wisdom dictates that if there is no one to arrest, then what remains is social work, and that’s not the police job. Obviously, this sort of thinking is wrongheaded and dangerous. Crime in our communities is certainly part of the police job.
When community crime prevention is viewed from the lens of proactivity rather than reactivity, social work is indeed part of the police job. This has become so obvious to serious thinkers on police reform that several jurisdictions have partnered police officers with social workers, and the results have been nothing short of amazing. A full-fledged, licensed social worker may be a valuable asset to police officers, but that doesn’t change the fact that the real police job is infused with social work, and cops need to recognize that fact if they are ever to obtain legitimacy in modern American society.
Police leaders often shun programs designed to prevent violence between people in social relationships because of the perception that they are too expensive in terms of both money and officers’ time. After all, preventing a few crimes can’t have much of an impact on overall crime rates. That, too, is wrong-headed. We need to rethink our ideas about crime statistics and realize that not all crimes are created equal and that some crimes don’t really matter at all. I don’t know of a neighborhood in the United States where the residents wouldn’t vote to trade 1,000 arrests for possession of marijuana for a single life saved from ongoing domestic violence. When we focus on “crime statistics,” we reduce human suffering to mere numbers, and we forget that those numbers represent real people with real problems. Policing needs to be about people and the quality of life of those people.
The flip side of the “statistics” coin is that each criminal act translates into one “bad guy” that needs catching. We often lose sight of the fact that the “bad guy” is a human being and a member of the community. I’ve often wondered if the “us against them” mentality that develops within police culture is a byproduct of the dehumanization necessary to psychologically distance officers from stupid laws with draconian punishments that they don’t actually believe in. I don’t suggest that there aren’t evil people in the world, and I freely acknowledge that there are lots of people in prison that aren’t fit to live in civil society.
My contention is that we do a poor job of discriminating between dangerous, evil people and ignorant people in bad situations that made bad choices (often because of mental illness). Oftentimes, those people don’t wind up in prison. But they wind up arrested, and they wind up being ground down by the assembly line of the criminal justice system. While it is beyond the scope of this little book, every voter should consider that the entire criminal justice system needs reform, and it isn’t fair to blame the police for all of our woes. When we look for distal causes, most of the blame rests with our legislatures.
The above points all lead up to an important premise: The point of community policing is not about choosing between “social work” and “real police work.” It’s not about giving up on catching bad guys at the expense of public safety to free up time for “feel good” policing. It is about redefining the police role in our communities and putting first things first. Code enforcement, as measured by official crime statistics, is only meaningful if those statistics represent the real suffering of real people, and the actions of police put a stop to it. If the “bad guy” is out of jail before the arresting officers can get back in their patrol car and nothing changes the next day, then we are wasting massive amounts of money and human resources on a pointless endeavor.
The real goals of the police should be centered on preventing human suffering, whether that means suffering because people are victims of crime, or they merely live in fear of becoming a crime victim. Policing should be about making our communities safe and secure by design. When we become obsessed with making the “stats,” we often find that aggressive enforcement tactics result in communities where the police are indistinguishable from the “criminals,” at least in the minds of everyday citizens. The hopes, fears, and dreams of community members are complex and nuanced; real people don’t see life in terms of “good guys” and “bad guys.” They see life in terms of how they live it; they see life in terms of their joys and sorrows. These issues can be summed up by the phrase “quality of life.”
This focus on the police mission seems a bit short on concrete recommendations, but it is absolutely critical to the success of any reform effort (a laundry list of policy recommendations is proffered in the final chapter of this book). The enact enduring reform, we can’t rely on bullet lists of policy responses. We must crystalize what exactly it is we want police to accomplish in our communities, and establish concrete goals and objectives to achieve those overarching ends. It is an ancient bit of wisdom that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”
If we attempt (as has been done in the past) to superimpose community policing onto a traditional police department with traditional values, it will fail to accomplish its objective. As Stephen Covey suggests, we must “begin with the end in mind.” The goal of all democratic governments should be to create an environment where citizens are free to pursue their own happiness. People cannot be happy when they are victimized and fearful, and we have handed that public trust off to the police. Yet the view to the noble goals of policing has been blurred by a political reality that didn’t have “liberty and justice for all” as a primary objective.
The political reality of American policing is told in a history of wealth and privilege equating to political power. “We the people” has been a noble goal of our great experiment of a nation, but we have never fully achieved it. We have some of the spirit of “liberty and justice” in our system of laws (especially constitutional law), but the political reality of policing forces officers to actively try and thwart the spirit of those laws. The Bill of Rights isn’t widely viewed as a sacred trust; it is viewed as a set of inconvenient obstacles that must be overcome so that officers can go about the real police business of catching bad guys. That is the cornerstone of traditional policing, and it cannot stand under the same roof as true community policing. Because the two are fundamentally different at their very core, there can’t be a symbiosis. The new must rise from the ashes of the old.
Civilianization of Police
Above, we have argued that the police must be college-educated, highly trained (and adequately paid) individuals. Yet, we don’t need as many of them as it may first seem. Much of the work that officers do is somewhat generic, and we don’t need actual sworn police officers to perform many of these mundane tasks. We can afford elite officers if we limit the tasks that they perform. This can be accomplished to a large degree by hiring civilians to do things that don’t require special vetting, specialized training, higher education, excellent physical health, and so forth.
From the most mundane, routine tasks to high-level command positions, police departments can use civilian employees to deliver services to the community. Obviously, positions that involve clerical, accounting, maintenance, and technical duties don’t require sworn officers. Less obvious is the idea that calls for non-emergency services can be delegated to civilian staff. Crime scene technicians have no need to be police officers, and many departments across the country have seized on this idea. Crime victim services are almost always better handled by social workers working with police departments, and there is no reason for them to be sworn. Analysts, researchers, planners, and other administrative tasks need to be thinkers and visionaries, not cops. Controversially, I argue that strategic leaders don’t need to be cops either. The veteran cop with many years of law enforcement experience under the traditional model of policing isn’t likely to pull off the transition to community policing very well.
Another idea that is likely to greatly upset the “old guard” is the idea that investigators don’t need to be sworn officers. Many states use civilian investigators to investigate child abuse cases, tax evasion cases, and the like. There is no good reason that many other types of crime require a sworn officer to investigate. “Cold” burglary scenes, for example, can be investigated by a civilian investigator. Officers spend a great deal of time working traffic accidents, and there is no need for a sworn officer to do that job. In urban areas, officers spend a great deal of time and energy on parking enforcement.
One way to deal with the civilianization of police departments is to create a municipal public safety agency that would work parallel to the police, but not directly under the same command structure. I envision this agency to be legally similar to park rangers, forest rangers, and animal control officers. They have some specialized law enforcement duties, especially regarding certain regulations. Still, they don’t have weapons, are not generally authorized to use force, and are mandated to “observe and report” when dangerous situations arise. These lesser-trained “officers” could have fewer qualifications, less education, and be paid much less. They would wear different uniforms and have different insignia. They could do a lot of the ordinance enforcement tasks that upset people, like writing parking tickets, issue citations for nuisance abatement, write up accident reports, serve court summonses, and so forth. In general, there is no need for a highly qualified police officer to respond to a noncritical, nonviolent call for service.
While I did spend many years as a part-time deputy, my primary job (the one that paid the bills) was as a criminal justice professor. I’ve had many students over the years that, for one reason or another, would never qualify for a career as a police officer. Often, they had health problems, poor vision, a meek disposition, or something else that disqualified them. Many of them were simply of the wrong temperament; they were small, meek, and just too scared to work the streets. Many of those were, however, very smart, compassionate, and hard-working. Some spoke different languages and had ties to the community. They would be great assets to a police department if not for the physical standard and the ever-present danger. With civilianization, they can find roles and do a job that they’ll love.
Another “force multiplier” that many departments have used (especially small rural ones) is part-time officers, commonly called “reserve” officers or “auxiliary” officers. During parades, fairs, festivals, and the like, there is a need for extra security. Reserve officers are also useful in search and rescue operations and prisoner transports. Usually, such officers must work under the supervision of a full-time officer, with often liberal interpretations of what “supervision” really means.
In certain circumstances, these part-time, well-trained volunteers are useful, and their capacity as sworn officers is desirable. Other times, they are doing mundane tasks that don’t really require a gun and a badge. When I served in this capacity, I spent a lot of time standing beside a barricade, explaining to people why they couldn’t drive through a parade area. No specialized tactical training was necessary, and it cost the Sheriff’s Department zero dollars.
Often overlooked is the idea that police departments can benefit from the community ties of using civilian volunteers. Many of the tasks assigned to reserve officers can just as well be done by civilians without arrest powers. When someone calls a law enforcement agency from out of town because they are concerned for an elderly or sick relative that they cannot reach by phone, often an officer will be dispatched to the person’s home for a “welfare check.” State laws often require that the local law enforcement agency notify neighborhood residents that a sex offender has moved in nearby. Many police departments have “security survey” checklists that they will go over with homeowners to see how vulnerable the home is to burglary. These sorts of things can be very time-consuming but lend a lot of community credibility to the department. They are also the perfect use for police volunteers. Obviously, if these volunteers are going to be the public face of the department, they need to be vetted and present themselves well. That shouldn’t be a difficult task for a police department.
Volunteer programs are also an excellent way to leverage the expertise that a police department could not otherwise afford. Computer security experts command a high salary, but many will work for police departments on a volunteer basis because working with police is “cool.” Pilots, filmmakers, web designers, medical doctors, and pilots with private planes have all been known to work as volunteers for police departments out of a spirit of community service (and the cool factor).
Through a combination of civilian employees, volunteer reserve officers, and civilian volunteers, a lot of community policing tasks can be performed at very little cost to the department. Each of these volunteers is vested in the welfare of the department, and police have advocates within the larger community. Every task that someone else does frees up the time of police officers to engage the community. In short, I recommend reducing the number of sworn police officers, making them elite, and paying them as elite professionals. To make such elite police officers, agencies need to hire only elite recruits.
My recommendations on establishing police officers as highly qualified, elite public servants echo the recommendations of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing to a large degree. As I have, the Task Force recognized that the hiring process is the foundation of “effective, procedurally just policing.” To this end, it is absolutely critical that the hiring process results in a pool of officers representing a cross-section of the community they will serve. In other words, the police need to reflect the community’s diversity and values. They also need the mindset and the skills to engage the community. The Task Force encouraged states to establish high standards for who qualifies to be an officer. A key focus of this recommendation was to select officer candidates based on character traits and social skills. Social skills, to a large degree, can be taught, but a good character cannot be. A critical component of the police hiring process needs to be a thorough background check. Obviously, being a felon precludes one from police service. The more difficult part is determining whether a person without an easily discoverable criminal record is an ethical person. That requires a much higher level of diligence than most departments use.
In the past, the single best predictor of getting hired as a police officer was having already been a police officer. Chief’s love to hire officers away from other departments. Moving a sworn officer from one department to another is a relatively quick process within the same state because the person is already certified by the state, and the training records are already on file. To meet the state legal requirements, often all that is necessary is a single-page form detailing the transfer to the new agency.
The process is a little more difficult when an officer moves to another state, but many states have a special academy for persons that are already police officers and need to be “brought up to speed” on state-specific laws and procedures. Hiring new officers, on the other hand, is expensive, takes a lot of valuable time, and is a gamble. The new recruit needs to be sent to an academy, and they expect to get paid for that time while they are not “producing results.” New recruits may not be able or willing to complete the academy training, but the lost time and money are still incurred.
For a community policing agency, the candidate’s past experience as an officer is just as likely to be a detriment as it is a benefit to the department. Of course, unsuitable candidates need to be weeded out quickly and efficiently. If a person can’t perform basic police functions or isn’t of good character, then that needs to be ascertained quickly. Often, though, that is the end of the process. To get elite recruits, we need to go much further than “disqualifying the negative.” The key thing to be determined during the selection process is the level of agreement the candidate has with the mission and values of the department.
If we want a more just and community-oriented police force, then we need to hire socially conscious individuals with a keen sense of fairness from the very beginning. Ethics training can prepare a person of good character to make a split-second decision in a situation that they haven’t previously considered, but no amount of training can build good character. If police departments don’t select for good character during the recruitment phase, then all is already lost.
A forum empaneled after the Task Force published its final report was asked to identify the traits a good recruit should have. They came up with the following list:
- Service orientation
- Communication and human relations skills
- Team orientation
- Problem-solving skills
Teamwork, communication skills, and problem-solving skills can all be taught through a good university education. Note that the other items on that list are fairly well established in a person before they reach adulthood. We may gain more self-control over time as we age, but generally, those characteristics have to be selected for as if they were fixed traits. As the panel concluded, agencies must recruit for the “guardian” mentality, because “the warrior elements of the job can be taught.”
As I argued in the previous chapter, part of the reason that police cannot be expected to change from within is the way officers are trained, which includes indoctrination into the police subculture. Innovation rarely comes from an apprenticeship system.
Experts like those interviewed by the President’s Taskforce generally agree that at least some higher education should be required for police officers. The level of educational attainment, however, is often debated. Only around 15% of local law enforcement agencies in the United States require some college. In 2013, only 1% required a four-year degree. Most policing agencies in America today only require a high school diploma. The bigger the department, the more likely it is to require at least some college. Cities with populations greater than one million have the greatest likelihood of requiring some college (around 35% of them).
There is also broad agreement that college is most valuable for those officers that work in highly diverse communities. This may help explain why very large cities—which tend to be multicultural—are most likely to require higher education. Many thought leaders in policing realize that course content is not the only valuable component of a college education. It is vital for officers to be exposed to diverse ideas and ways of thinking. Also, college life exposes students to a much broader array of people from diverse backgrounds and cultures than they would likely ever get in any other environment. While online education is becoming ever more popular, the lack of personal exposure to this diversity may be a drawback to this mode of education. Perhaps video conferencing technology—which has exploded in popularity during the COVID-19 crisis—can help bridge that gap.
Many progressive police departments (e.g., Dallas PD) have successfully recruited officer candidates directly from universities. Anecdotal reports from these agencies suggest that this strategy may help with diversity issues, especially when it comes to recruiting women. Unfortunately, many departments have moved away from higher education requirements because they have more open slots for officers than they have qualified applicants. I believe this to be a direct result of American’s ambivalence toward public servants. We want great teachers, cops, and firefighters, so long as we don’t have to pay higher taxes to get them. This forces highly qualified applicants in these fields to move to states and cities where they will be rewarded for the money, time, and effort that they spent earning a degree. Most of my students, for example, that have graduated over my twenty-year teaching career, have gravitated toward state and federal jobs in criminal justice. Local agencies don’t seem to pay enough to be attractive.