In the last two weeks, two different grand juries in the United States chose not to indict police officers who used enough force to kill unarmed black men. People across the country have expressed outrage - and continue to protest against what many see as repeated and racially-charged police brutality. As this country seeks ways to understand and address the troubling divide between the police and the policed, there is one often-overlooked explanation. Education.
Take note of this fact: according to a 2003 Bureau of Justice Statistics study, 83% of all U.S. police departments require a high school diploma, but only 8% require a 4-year college degree. But another study, by 2010 Police Quarterly, revealed that officers with some college education are less likely to resort to force (56% of the time) than those who have never attended college (68% of the time).
And one very well-educated NYPD employee talked about a major barrier to entry into the police force - the sheer amount of time it takes to get there. “From the day you take the test, to the day you get into Academy, the average time is about 3.5 years. Very, very few [educated] people are willing to put their career on hold for 3-4 years after graduation.”
But what role does the level of education play? How does schooling - or lack of it - affect a cop’s mindset, help define an officer’s instincts? What happens during formative years of study that could alter a cop’s perspective?
Dr. Maria Haberfeld of John Jay College of Criminal Justice had some answers.
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WF: What are your thoughts on the findings that a college education reduces the likelihood of using force?
MH: One component here that people tend to ignore is the age component. If you go and get your degree first, you’re a couple of years older than the average recruit and at this age, when you’re so young, those couple of years are critical for our emotional development and decision making processes. It’s a huge deal in terms of how emotional you are, how you’re more into assessing things and not just reacting. So this is a very very important element of why we should be looking at higher education.
Education gives you a certain perspective on life and sometimes demystifies certain biases and concepts or preconceived notions about people, situations, and how to handle situations. The critical seconds and minutes that a person has when they have to make the decision whether or not to use force – when all of this is running through your head, these are just additional tools an officer has at his or her disposal.
I think there is a direct correlation between the specific topics police officers are exposed to during an academic career and the use of force. There can be some additional correlation if they’re pursuing degrees in fields related to police work. If they’re exposed to various research findings from studies of police conduct and misconduct, like police ethics for example, it’s an additional tool.
I just feel that especially in the United States, anything that we can offer a police officer in terms of an additional view of the world can add onto the view of the world that they currently possess.
WF: Do certain types of degrees or programs lend themselves better to a career as a police officer than others?
MH: Classes in ethics, whether it’s police or criminal justice ethics, are classes that give officers additional tools to think about the impact of the use of force beyond a particular moment that generates a desired result. But police community relations are influenced beyond that moment of desired result, and these are things we certainly discuss with them in classes when we talk about police ethics. There’s something I consider perishable versus non-perishable skills. Perishable skills are when you have to memorize the guide to pass the test and the next thing you know you don’t remember anything. But talking about the impact of use of force, the impact of policing and the interactions between police and public, those stay with the community forever. How they influence the perception of the police as a profession…these are the non-perishable skills that you start thinking about beyond just the use force.
WF: What is the average profile of someone entering the police force? Where does the NYPD recruit from, for example?
MH: Depends on the jurisdiction. The majority are people who have high school degrees or GEDs and who don’t necessarily have many other options. Here in New York, the NYPD requires at least an Associate Degree. I think people are looking for a job that’s challenging, that’s not 9-5 behind a desk, but I think that there’s a romanticized notion about the majority of police officers joining to serve and protect. The emphasis currently is whether you have the right background – ethnic, racial, or gender – we want to show how diverse you are but that doesn’t mean anything. I don’t care if I’m policed by a woman, I care that I’m policed by a professional.
WF: In the 1960s and 1970s, a number of presidential commissions recommended that all officers obtain 4-year degrees within the next decade, in the wake of police clashes with civil rights activists. Is there a historical precedent encouraging greater professionalism that we are still ignoring?
MH: Definitely. Police officers are recruited with criminal records. The majority of recruited police officers have misdemeanor records. That’s still a crime. I don’t want police on the job who have committed a crime and violated the law. It’s very nice to give a second chance but not in policing. If you have various violations I’m sorry… the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. So if you think someone who has three misdemeanor convictions is going to be a good police officer…
If you allow yourself to violate the law why would you go and enforce it?
WF: Are the hurdles in forcing police departments to change their policies purely budgetary?
MH: It’s budgetary, but in my mind it’s about manageability of the police force. People who are more educated tend to ask questions. And sometimes, it’s easier to have people who don’t ask questions or think critically.
WF: Are there resources available for people who are thinking about a career as a cop?
MH: There are various programs around the country that try to interest high school students in the police force but it’s not about going and trying to interest everybody in the profession. It’s about whether or not you want to be a police officer for the right reasons. I always say we should be recruiting age 25 and above. This is not something for people who are not developed emotionally and psychologically. It’s one thing to send a soldier to kill the enemy 50,000 miles away. It’s another thing to send kids to police the community that they come from.
WF: Have these stats made entry into police forces more competitive?
MH: No. I mean police departments have to change how they recruit and select if they want to be serious. That absolutely must change. You can have the best training, but if you offer it to the wrong people you’re not achieving anything. You have to strive to find the right people who are going to be recruited.