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The Door to Advancement in Criminal Justice Is Education, and Chiefs Are the Key: A Police Chief’s Perspective

By Colonel John I. Dixon, III, Chief of Police, Petersburg, Virginia

The police chief is responsible for controlling the resources of the police department in an effort to preserve the peace, protect persons and property, and enforce the law. Although this is an accurate depiction of the job, the law enforcement profession requires a great deal more. Just as police chiefs must serve as examples to their communities, they must also serve in that same role by inspiring and empowering their staff—not only to build community partnerships and eradicate crime, but to strive for personal success and excellence. This obligation is now more important than ever because some U.S. law enforcement agencies are now requiring undergraduate degrees for entry-level police positions and graduate studies for promotions and career development opportunities.

Realizing the Need

Officers today must realize the need to apply advanced, discipline-specific coursework to their current knowledge, skills, and abilities. Rising through the ranks based solely on performance and on-the-job experience is no longer the norm. Officers must gain critical hard and soft skills garnered through higher education to achieve their career goals. They need to gain the organizational and professional knowledge specific to law enforcement necessary for developing and managing strong departments. At the same time, they must also develop the skills needed to successfully implement this knowledge—skills such as team building, communication, critical thinking, and problem solving.

This is where the role of police chiefs becomes more critical than ever, by setting the example for the officers and police professionals following in their footsteps. They must impress upon their officers not only the importance of higher education, but also a drive for learning and the importance of planning what their futures will be and finding the paths that will allow that blueprint to be realized. This role is ongoing and manifests itself in numerous ways everyday: the rigor and determination by which police chiefs run their departments; the means by which they manage their teams; and the daily, individual interactions they have with officers. Each instance provides an opportunity to educate and inspire officers to pursue the right path in gaining the knowledge and skills critical to becoming a law enforcement leader.

Embarking on the path to achieving a degree is never easy, especially for officers and law enforcement professionals who are already working within the field. The responsibilities of both career and family will always be present and must be balanced against the responsibilities of being a student. In view of the demands of the job and other responsibilities, many active law enforcement professionals have found it difficult to complete undergraduate or graduate degrees in a traditional classroom environment. Higher education programs built around the needs of working adults offer the opportunity for law enforcement professionals to balance their professional, personal, and academic lives. It is also important for officers to pursue accredited, reputable criminal justice and management programs that will provide real-world experience from working law enforcement professionals so that officers immediately can begin to apply their education in their daily work.

Take University of Phoenix, for example, which offers classes both online and at local campuses so officers can fit courses into a schedule that works best for them. In addition, the university employs faculty members who are law enforcement leaders actively working in the field and can bring personal experiences from their daily work into the classroom for discussion and study. Education environments where working adults are the primary students also offer unique opportunities for sharing experiences and knowledge not always found in traditional colleges. To obtain the most from their educational experience, officers need to seek out programs that have experienced faculty and fellow students in order to maximize their abilities to both contribute their professional experience and gain from the experiences of those in the class. By sharing their diverse experiences, officers will be better equipped to apply that knowledge on the job today and in their roles as law enforcement leaders tomorrow.


The combination of the leadership and example set by a police chief and the commitment, discipline, dedication, and practical organizational skills developed in criminal justice programs, such as those learning environments offered by University of Phoenix, is the key to professional success in today’s law enforcement environment. ♦

Colonel John I. Dixon, III has served as a law enforcement professional since the early 1980s, rising through the ranks of the Richmond, Virginia, Police Department before taking the helm as the chief of police of Petersburg, Virginia. Chief Dixon is a former marine and a graduate of Saint Paul’s College and holds a master’s degree in public administration from University of Phoenix. Throughout his career as a beat officer, supervisor, and commander, he has conducted undercover operations that resulted in the notable arrests of high-profile government officials and drug kingpins, and has developed vital community-based programs and partnerships.

Please cite as:

John I. Dixon III, "The Door to Advancement in Criminal Justice Is Education, and Chiefs Are the Key: A Police Chief’s Perspective," The Police Chief 79 (November 2012): 60.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXIX, no. , November 2012. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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