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Back to Archives | Back to August 2006 Contents 

Measuring Professionalism of Police Officers

By Lycia Carter, Ph.D., Director of Testing and Standards, Metropolitan Police Department, Washington, D.C., and Mark Wilson, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, North Carolina

or the past several decades, there have been efforts to increase the education requirements for law enforcement officers. Newspaper, magazine, and journal articles cite numerous studies whose findings sup-port the notion that better educated police officers are better performers. Increasingly, departments are requiring applicants to have completed a certain number of college credit hours or even earned two- or four-year college degrees.1

Researchers, practitioners, commissions, and even police agencies themselves have been calling for increased education requirements for police officers for many reasons. Some point out that police work has become increasingly complex and, as a result, education requirements for police officers should be increased.2 Others suggest that better educated police officers will be "more rounded thinkers and exhibit a greater humanistic bent."3

The authors have informally asked sworn members of all ranks at three different police agencies their opinion regarding the level of education that should be required for entry-level police officers. As expected, their opinions vary and often reflect their own level of education or their rank. Of those who are proponents of college-education requirements for law enforcement officers, many said that requiring college education results in a more professional police force.

What Is Professionalism?
Every police officer who is asked this question will likely have a different under-standing of what constitutes professional-ism in policing. For some, professionalism means being able to talk oneself out of a dangerous situation rather than having to resort to use of force. For others, it means being able to establish relationships with people in the community. For still others, it means carrying oneself in a manner that exudes authority and control, or taking responsibility for one's actions, or being dependable and conscientious, or taking appropriate initiative in situations requiring police action to prevent tensions from escalating, or being respectful of the civil rights of citizens, or being knowledgeable about laws, policies, procedures and regulations. In fact, professionalism in policing includes all of these attributes.

Professionalism, by definition, involves belonging to a profession and behaving in a way that is consistent with professional standards. A profession is an occupation that requires extensive training and the study and mastery of specialized knowledge. It usually requires accreditation, certification, or licensing. It has a specific code of ethics, and it holds members accountable.

Professionalism also means having an internal set of standards of performance and behavior. Professionals aspire to high ideals: altruism; honor and integrity; respect; excellence and scholarship; caring, compassion, and communication; leadership; and responsibility and accountability.

How Do We Measure Professionalism?
In applied research, the measurement of job performance, either in whole or in part, is often referred to as the criterion problem.4 In the present case, education level is the predictor and professionalism is the study's criterion, or the aspect of police officer performance that is being predicted. Recently, the authors reviewed 19 studies conducted between 1973 and 2005 that investigated the relationship between education level and police officer performance. Most of the studies examined the relationship between education level and multiple performance measures-and this makes sense, given that the definition of professionalism in policing is fairly complex.

Most of the performance measures were objective, meaning that the incidents could be counted: the number of times the officer called in sick; the number of commendations, awards, or medals the officer received; the number of citizen complaints against the officer. Some studies included evaluative measures such as ratings of officer performance collected from citizens, supervisors, peers, or even the officers themselves. Figure 1 lists the types of data collected as measures of police performance and the number of times each measure was used across the 19 studies. These criteria, when taken together as a group, should be a good measure of the level of professionalism of police officers. And comparing these criteria against officers' education level should help us determine whether education predicts police officer performance.

But most studies that examine the relationship between education level and police performance include only a few of the measures. The performance measures used most frequently are disciplinary actions, citizen complaints, and commendations, followed closely by volume of arrests or summonses and sick time used.

It is apparent that the measures used most frequently in these earlier studies were not an exhaustive list but were chosen because the data could be collected in a consistent manner, were objective in nature and were not affected by subjective evaluations. As useful as some of the current measures are, the skills that higher education provides and that may be the most important to police departments are the most difficult to measure. Report writing, organization, comprehension, courtroom presentation, problem solving, dispute resolution, critical thinking, tact, sound judgment, impartiality, intellectual curiosity, analysis-these skills and attributes are the hallmarks of professionalism.

Continuing the Study
Supervisors know that 20 percent of the people cause 80 percent of the problems. Time and again the same officers are the focus of the citizen complaint or disciplinary action. They also know that another 20 percent of officers, the exceptionally good ones, get most of the commendations, medals, and ribbons. What about the other 60 percent? Is their performance being captured in these studies? Are these studies measuring professionalism or merely giving us a glimpse of the best and worst officers?

The authors are interested in conducting a study that determines if college-educated law enforcement officers perform better than officers who do not have this credential. In order to do this, it is essential to identify what police officer performance is and ways to measure the performance of all officers, not just the best and the worst. Suggestions from readers are welcome. ■

1 D. Bruns, "Patrol Officers' Opinions on the Importance of a College Degree," Law & Order 53 (September 2005): 96-99.
2 S. Kakar, "Self-Evaluations of Police Performance: An Analysis of the Relationship between Police Officers' Education Level and Job Performance," Policing 21 (1998): 632.
3 P.E. Carlan and F. R. Byxbe, "The Promise of Humanistic Policing: Is Higher Education Living Up to Societal Expectations?" American Journal of Criminal Justice 24 (2000): 235-245.
4 J.T. Austin and P. Villanova, "The Criterion Problem: 1917-1992," Journal of Applied Psychology 77 (1992): 836-874.



From The Police Chief, vol. 73, no. 8, August 2006. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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