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CALEA Update Magazine | Issue 108

Is Policing a Job or a Profession? The Case for a Four-year Degree

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What does it mean to be a professional? Is policing a job or a profession? The label of profession is often applied to a set of specialized skills that are transferable through training and experience.

Profession also implies the development of objective work standards articulated through policies and procedures that define tasks and desired outcomes. While applying skills and standards are critical in defining a traditional model of professionalism, more essential is an emphasis on autonomous expertise, independent judgment, and the service ideal.

The new other than mandatory law enforcement standard (33.8.4) adopted by the Commission in July 2011 states: “A written directive establishes the agency’s commitment to higher education through one or more of the following: a. a requirement of all candidates for full-time sworn positions to possess at a minimum a bachelor’s degree;…” This standard is a commitment to higher education as the foundation for building and maintaining a professional workforce, and as such, a four-year degree represents the minimum qualifications necessary to support the current nature and function of policing in our communities.

The college experience provides officers with opportunities to equip themselves with meaningful skills and personal attributes necessary for today’s police work. On a very tangible level, college-level course work enhances officers’ research and analytic skills, preparing them for solving complex problems without the need for strict supervision. Officers must be able to understand and apply the law; to dissect complex social problems; and integrate the knowledge of human needs and development with the psychology of persons whose attitudes toward the law may be different from their own. Often the quality of an officer is measured by his or her ability to resolve problems without using force or other suppressive tactics.

Through college, individuals become better communicators who are then able to use those skills to explore new ideas to forge community partnerships that improve empirical safety and citizens’ sense of safety. Today’s officers are expected to be computer literate and technologically savvy, conduct community meetings with PowerPoint presentations, and to read, interpret, prepare, and analyze statistical data. Sergeants and lieutenants routinely employ survey research to determine citizen opinions and priorities for service delivery options. Supervisors are expected to analyze trends and data using contemporary sociological research methods and develop cost-benefit analyses in weighing operational options. The results are very well-reasoned, high-quality, and data-driven decisions, attributable to a well-educated work force.

Building a diverse police workforce involves hard work and planning and should never involve lowering standards or expecting less from candidates than is required to perform the job of a police officer. Likewise, professional police service cannot be provided to a community without police officers who are knowledgeable in its languages and cultures. Structured classroom experiences engender an appreciation for differences by providing opportunities for students to communicate with people from all walks of life. Officers begin to understand the concepts of community justice and the dignity of individuals, a hallmark of professional policing; that trust must be earned through respect. A four-year education standard sends a strong message to persons in racial and ethnic minority communities, many of whom are first-generation college students, that employers who require a degree also recognize its value.

A college degree promotes a culture of constant learning, where change is accepted and managed, and where creativity in solving problems is sparked by exposure to diverse ideas and alternative explanations. As the nature and function of police work changes, adaptability, fostered by a culture of continuous learning, will become an essential need in the police profession. Education must be ongoing; and better policing a constant pursuit.

In summary, an educated workforce is more empowered, diverse in thought, and prepared. Hiring college-degreed candidates into the law enforcement profession does not guarantee they will be good officers. However, better educated officers will have a greater likelihood of creating sound solutions to today’s public safety issues.

Author
Theron L. Bowman, Ph.D.
Chief of Police
Arlington Police Department
Arlington, Texas
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