Police executives and scholars assert the complexity of 21st century policing demands a college degree.
By Christie Gardiner, Special to CalMatters
Christie Gardiner is a professor of Criminal Justice at California State University, Fullerton, firstname.lastname@example.org.
The summer 2020 protests that erupted over George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers sparked renewed calls for police reform. Raising educational standards is a policy used throughout the world to improve police performance and legitimacy.
The 1967 President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice recommended that by 1982 all police officers should have a bachelor’s degree. That aspirational deadline was obviously not met, and most local agencies require only a high school diploma to be hired. Nationwide, the percentage of college-educated officers is similar to the general population, about 30%.
Police executives and scholars assert the complexity of 21st century policing demands a college degree. Today’s officers are expected to apply evidenced-based practices and technological innovations to prevent and solve crimes, respect individuals’ due process rights, and resolve an array of compound problems with little, if any, specialized training.
Police agencies are asked to transfer responsibility for challenging social problems – homelessness and mental illness – to other public or nonprofit entities. The civilians replacing officers in these roles will be bachelor’s or master’s trained specialists.
In November 2020, the California Police Chiefs Association and Peace Officers Research Association of California proposed legislation to require higher education for new officers. Since then, Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer, a Democrat from South Los Angeles, introduced Assembly Bill 89 to require future police recruits to have a bachelor’s degree, or be 25 years old upon hire. State Sen. Anthony Portatino, a Democrat from La Cañada Flintridge, introduced Senate Bill 387 to require new officers to take college classes, but not earn a degree.
AB 89, the only bill to require a bachelor’s degree, is based on academic research that shows a college degree can improve police legitimacy, professionalism and accountability – factors crucial for democratic policing. Specifically, officers with a four-year degree use force less often, use lower levels of force, receive fewer complaints and disciplinary actions, and write better investigatory reports than their non-college educated peers.
The public supports raising education standards for California officers. A recent CALSPEAKS statewide poll found that 81% of Californians believe that police officers should have more than a high school diploma, 46% support a two-year degree and 35% support a four-year degree.
With more college-educated officers than all but three states – less than 42% of officers have at least a bachelor’s degree – California is well-positioned to make this bold and important move. California could be the first state in the nation to require recruits to have a four-year degree. The move would not be unprecedented, as four countries – United Kingdom, Denmark, Finland and Norway – and a handful of U.S. agencies already require a college degree to be hired and three states require some college.
Some fear that requiring a college degree for entry-level police officers would exclude otherwise-qualified minority or female candidates. My research finds that the percentage of minority officers in an agency is not affected by minimum education standards and that female officers are more educated than their male counterparts.
Therefore, in consultation with stakeholders, the Legislature should pass a combined version of AB 89 and SB 387 that requires new police recruits to have a bachelor’s degree, provides the necessary monetary supports to agencies to ensure policy success, and establishes a working group of stakeholders including, CA-POST, California Community Colleges, California State University, University of California, and others to generate a pipeline of diverse and college-educated officers from varied backgrounds eager to serve our communities. While a degree is key to achieve desired benefits, the pipeline and agency support are vital to recruit a robust and professional workforce.
Most importantly, these college-educated officers must be deployed equitably across California communities, especially those with low trust and few resources. If that doesn’t happen, raising education standards merely raises professional prestige and salary without improving service to residents who deserve it. This policy could make a significant contribution to improving police performance and legitimacy. Setting higher education standards at the state level will ensure that all Californians benefit.