Detective Lieutenant Barry M. Baker (ret.) is a 32 year veteran of the Baltimore Police Department.
Police and education has been a topic for decades with the goal of flooding police departments across the nation with college educated cops. Ironically, the number of police officers with college degrees are the same as the general population at 30 percent. If you’d ask experienced police officers their views on police and education, they might tell you that just being a police officer is itself “the best education on earth.”
Keeping police and education at the forefront, you’re wondering what level of education you should have or attain in pursuit of a police career. The first thing you have to consider is where you are right now, and there are questions you have to ask yourself in relation to police and education:
Are you a new high school graduate? - Police and Education
You’ve got time to prepare for your police career that for most police departments begin at the age of 21. There are police departments that have police cadet programs where you can be employed at age 18. You’ll work in administrative positions; until, you enter the police academy when you turn 21.
This is a good career path if you’re certain you want a police career, and your police department has a good pay and benefits package. In this scenario, you’ll probably have tuition assistance available to you which will decrease the cost of a Bachelor’s degree.
Are you a high school graduate pushing 30, or more, with no or some college?
This scenario fits a lot of people. Early in my career, a limited number of police departments required entry level police officer applicants to have a Bachelor’s degree to meet the police and education goal. Today, as then, you’ll find that police departments requiring a bachelor’s degree serve comparatively wealthy jurisdictions. Many of those departments have had to alter their police and education requirement, because it vastly decreases the hiring pool.
If you’re an older applicant with this limited educational background, there are advantages and disadvantages. One advantage is that you’ve got more life experience than the younger applicant. Your background is more extensive, and the background investigation has more to examine to evaluate your fitness to become a police officer.
One disadvantage is that you’re getting off to a later start. If you decide police work is not for you, it’s doubtful your time as a police officer will benefit you in further pursuits. From a police and education perspective, any higher education you attained during your police career is a good thing.
Are you a new college graduate?
Congratulations! Your Bachelor’s degree will definitely put you at the top of the hiring list in any police department. There is one caveat. The degree will ensure that you’re hired; unless, you did something stupid in college like getting arrested for drunk driving. From the time you begin considering a police career, you must remember that as important as the degree can be, it is still only one factor.
What kind of Bachelor's Degree is Required for a Police Career
One would assume that a criminal justice degree would be required, but the reality is a degree is a degree. When it comes to police and education, the type of degree doesn’t matter. Like the high school diploma used to be the required standard, the bachelor degree is constantly declining to that standard.
There are exceptions, of course. If you’re a graduate from MIT, your degree has far more earning potential than if you obtained a liberal arts degree from even a top tier university. Then again, if you’re an MIT graduate, it’s highly unlikely that you’d be considering a police career.
I supervised a new police officer who had earned his degree in political science from a top tier university. He went on to rapidly climb the civil service promotion ladder to the top rank of lieutenant. As a new lieutenant, he earned a Masters’ degree in criminal justice, at departmental expense, from the same university.
A Very Smart Guy
He went on to be appointed to the command staff rank of major. The position he held as a major required his self-learned skills in computer science and information technology. He was a very smart guy, and he was perfectly capable of a command rank position anywhere in the department. However, he had no real political connections which are absolutely essential in achieving any appointed position in any police department. This was a rare instance where qualifications trumped politics, because he was unquestionably the most qualified person for the position.
After his successful twenty year police career, he retired at the ripe old age of 42. Today, it isn’t a question of whether he can find a job in information technology. It’s simply a question of which job he wants to accept. There’s no question that his formal educational background looks good on a resume, but that’s just a bonus. The education he acquired through experience and self-acquired knowledge is another version of police and education.
Intellectual Prejudice Factor to Police and Education
If you’re not already aware, prejudice is all around you. Some forms of prejudice are perfectly acceptable while others are not. Terms like woke and politically correct are used to describe the acceptable forms of prejudice. Among acceptable prejudices is one that’s been around forever, and it will exist as long as human beings exist. The popularity and extent of intellectual prejudice will be determined upon the environment in which it is practiced.
When I joined the Baltimore Police Department in 1971, I entered a police department that had undergone a major reorganization beginning in 1966. It had become one of the most sophisticated police departments in the country at every level of the organization.
Ironically, the vast modernization was accomplished in a police department where the vast majority of police officers had little or no formal education beyond high school. This lack of college education existed among command staff members as well. I use the word ironically, because today intellectual prejudice would dictate that what was accomplished back then really couldn’t happen due to the lack of police and education.
Police Agent Program - Police and Education
Along with the reorganization was a police and education effort by the Baltimore Police Commissioner to hire new officers with bachelor degrees and encourage current officers to continue their formal education. The Commissioner established the Police Agent Program. At the time, a police officer reached his top salary level after five years of service.
A new police officer who possessed a Bachelor’s degree would become a police agent after only one year of service. The police agent title came with a pay increase of five-hundred dollars above a top paid police officer. Keep in mind that in the early 1970’s five-hundred dollars was a significant sum of money. not to mention the agent’s overall salary increase after only one year.
You can probably imagine the intellectual prejudice that police agents endured. It’s not as bad as it sounds. While the police agent did not receive any additional authority and performed the same duties as other police officers, the agent definitely had the edge when it came to promotions and assignments. The worst intellectual prejudice an agent might suffer is when the agent did something stupid. The other, less educated, police officers might say something like, “Well, what do you expect? He’s an Agent.”
Back then, the intellectual prejudice was humorous as well. A friend of mine achieved agent status, and he was justifiably proud of his accomplishment. In his general interaction with the public, he would refer to himself as Agent Jones versus Officer Jones. (Jones is an alias for which the reason will become apparent).
Humor Helps - Police and Education
One afternoon, a woman came to the district police station and approached the desk sergeant. Agent Jones had investigated a complaint for the woman, and she came to provide Agent Jones with additional information. The desk was manned by the desk sergeant and a police officer. Also present were several other police officers who were finishing their paperwork from an arrest.
The desk sergeant politely greeted the woman, and he asked what he could do to help her. The woman responded by saying, “I’d like to speak with Secret Agent Jones.”
I can’t image how that poor woman must have interpreted the smiles that crossed the faces of the sergeant and every officer around her when she uttered her request. The desk sergeant didn’t miss a beat as he picked up the microphone for the station house intercom and spoke. “There’s a lady at the desk wishing to speak with Secret Agent Jones. If Secret Agent Jones is in the station, would Secret Agent Jones please report to the desk?”
Agent Jones was not in the station, but the woman’s information was taken for a follow-up report. Of course, it didn’t take long for Agent Jones to become aware of the woman’s visit. Good jokes move through a police department almost as fast as bad rumors. As you might expect, Agent Jones went back to using Officer Jones when interacting with the public.
Police and Education Effects on Promotions
You might think that your bachelor’s degree will aid you in obtaining promotions. Again, the police and education short answer is, yes. But, then you have to ask the question, to what extent will my Bachelor’s degree help me?
What would you think are the most important factors affecting your ability to attain higher rank within a police department? Would you be surprised to learn that out of three factors, your level of education will place last?
Factors 1 and 2: Personal relationships and political connections are the first two most important factors affecting promotions and preferred assignments.
These two factors are interchangeable in importance depending upon the particular circumstance. For example, you don’t have a degree, but you’ve placed near the top of your department’s promotion list for sergeant. There are ten sergeant vacancies, and you’re number 5 on the list. However, when your police chief fills those vacancies, you’re not among those promoted to sergeant.
When it comes to promotions in police departments, all are corrupt. It’s never a question if the promotion process is corrupt. The only question is to what extent the process is corrupted. If a police chief has the ability to circumvent a competitive promotion process in favor of personal relationships or political connections, that’s usually what’s going to happen. A Bachelor’s degree may well save you from being the one excluded in this scenario if there is another person setting within those top 10 positions who does not have a Bachelor’s degree.
Specialized Assignments - Police and Education
You’ve been a patrol officer for ten years, and your goal has always been to become a homicide detective. You work in a large police department, and your experience as a patrol officer in a high crime environment has provided you numerous interactions with your department’s homicide unit.
Beyond that, you have fostered personal relationships with detectives and supervisors in the unit. What’s really important is that during the ten years as a patrol officer, you took the idea of police and education seriously, and you earned a Bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from a local university.
A vacancy within the homicide unit occurs, and you feel this is the opportunity you’ve been awaiting. All the feed-back from members of the homicide unit give you every reason to believe that you are the front runner for the open detective’s position. But, it turns out that you’ve got some competition. Your competition is an officer with only five years on the department.
The officer spent barely one year as a patrol officer before moving around in a number of specialized assignments. His current assignment for the last two years has been detailed as the Mayor’s primary chauffeur. But, you have a Bachelor of Criminal Justice (B.C.J.) while the chauffeur has a Bachelor of Music (B.M.)
Realistically, ask yourself this question. Is there really any doubt in your mind which one of you will get that homicide detective’s position?
Here’s how it all comes down. You should make every effort to obtain a Bachelor’s degree. As to how much that degree will benefit you will always be debatable. What is not debatable is that not having the degree will never be of any benefit whatsoever.
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