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Back to Archives | Back to August 2006 Contents 

Changing Profession Requires New Level of Education

By Ellen McFall, Staff Writer, Distance Learning Center, University of Wisconsin–Platteville

he training of police officers in the last century focused mainly on the physical aspects of the job. Officers were expected to be reactive, appearing in a community only when a situation had gotten out of control. They adhered to a militaristic chain of command and were not encouraged to find creative solutions to neighbor-hood problems. In that milieu, many departments considered a high school degree all the academic preparation that was necessary to be an efficient officer. But as the new century brings new challenges and new opportunities for police officers, it also requires the police profession as a whole to reevaluate its educational requirements.

The Change" When I became an Arlington, Texas, police officer in 1983, officers were expected to be submissive to authority and follow policy and supervisory directions," recalls Theron Bowman, now police chief of Arlington. "Policies attempted to address every conceivable situation so as to release officers from the necessity of thinking for themselves. Decisions were made at the top of the organization. Communication flowed mostly one-way: from the top down. That authoritarian style of management stifled creativity and innovation but was necessary when employees were expected to fail. Today, we have greater respect for the autonomy of police officers. We recognize that police officers must be able to understand and apply the law, the nature of social problems, and the psychology of the persons whose attitude toward the law may differ from theirs."2

The current emphasis on community policing requires today's officer to be proactive, working together with local residents to ensure a neighborhood's quality of life. Community officers are no longer expected simply to show up to make arrests but are required to have the skills necessary to keep minor situations from escalating into major ones. To mesh effectively with the court system, officers must have a solid understanding of constitutional issues and a commitment to keep up with judicial rulings that affect police. In addition to knowledge of weapons and police procedure, today's officer must be sensitive to social issues, be a good communicator, and be skilled in conflict resolution. These higher-level skills require a higher level of education than was previously necessary.

"It is important that criminal justice practitioners earn at least a bachelor's degree," notes Dr. Susan Hilal, assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. "Among other things, it allows students to become better critical thinkers, improve on their writing and oral skills, and have a broader perspective of the world. Criminal justice agencies can teach new hires the technical side of the job. It is much harder to teach new recruits how to think, speak, and write critically."

The importance of requiring some college education for police officers is highlighted by research that indicates that more educated officers are less likely to be disciplined for unprofessional behavior. In a study con-ducted in Florida, researchers reviewed the disciplinary records of that state's police officers from 1997 to 2002. They discovered that officers whose highest educational attainment was a high school diploma constituted 58 percent of Florida's officers but were the subjects of 75 percent of the disciplinary measures.3 A similar study in New York City found that of the officers arrested for corruption from 1993 to 1997, 86 percent had less than two years of college education.4

Obtaining a Degree
Nationally, more law enforcement agencies are requiring at least some college for their new hires and advanced degrees for those seeking promotions, motivating many experienced officers to consider returning to school. But upgrading professional skills can be difficult for working adults who must deal with unpredictable shifts, time-consuming commutes to school, and family obligations. In fact, these obstacles can make earning an advanced degree in a traditional campus program nearly impossible. For many officers, earning a degree online may be the only realistic choice.

Studying at a distance often requires more self-motivation than attending cam-pus courses, but the flexible schedule allows nontraditional students to more easily meet work and family obligations. Many online programs employ asynchronous communication, which means that students are free to enter the virtual classroom at any time of the day that is convenient for them. Although online courses may seem to be a solitary learning experience, many online students are surprised to learn that they can join a virtual classroom community through e-mail and discussion boards. Because the students and the instructor are likely to live n different parts of the country-or different countries-there is an added opportunity for professionals to network with others in their field. Courses often include some type of group experience, such as collaborative projects, that allow students to interact across the miles.

Deb Rice, 2004 alumna of the University of Wisconsin-Platteville's master of criminal justice program, notes that the diverse group of students she encountered in her online courses impressed her. "I had federal correctional officers, juvenile workers, state and federal probation officers, FBI agents, police officers, and private security officers in my classes," she says. "Distance learning is the only way this diverse population would be in your classroom. You really get to know your classmates, even though I have never met them in person."

Despite its many benefits, learning at a distance is not easy and is not for every-one. Successful distance learners must be highly motivated, independent, and self-disciplined. Good organizational and time management skills are vital, as students are generally responsible for making and keeping their own schedules. Without a strong sense of commitment to keep them going, the path to an advanced degree may seem too distant for some. Self-rewards for keeping to a schedule are important, as is free time spent alone and with family and friends. Basic computer skills are generally necessary before pursuing an online education. Many online degree programs offer sample courses for prospective students to try before committing to the format. One such sample course can be viewed at (

Like most fields, online education has its share of fly-by-night providers. Unfortunately, anyone can offer an online school and many unscrupulous companies compete to lure unsuspecting students to their Web sites. Fraudulent schools often have legitimate-looking Web sites and professional-looking brochures. They may even advertise in mainstream magazines and newspapers. Some go so far as to announce that they are accredited, but further investigation reveals that the accrediting body is either fictitious or not recognized by any official education agency.

It is a good idea to research a school's accreditation and its history before enrolling. Beware of so-called diploma mills that offer degrees for lots of money and little work. To avoid wasting time and money on a degree that will not be accepted by other schools or by prospective employers, investigate accreditation and licensing before enrolling in any distance-learning program. A visit to a site such as ( online clearinghouse for legitimate distance learning programs-is crucial before deciding on an online school. Those wishing to verify a school's accreditation may wish to visit the Diploma Mill Police at ( ■

1 Dale Keiger, "Top Cops Hit the Books," John Hopkins Magazine (June 1997), (, May 5, 2006.
2 Theron Bowman, "Diversity, Education, and Professionalism: Arlington's Path to Excellence in Policing," lecture, Heritage Foundation, Washington, D.C., October 24, 2001, (, June 21, 2006.
3 Scott Cunningham, panel discussion, 110th Annual IACP Conference, October 2003, (, May 6, 2006.
4 Police Association for College Education, "Studies, Case Law, Quotes, Standards and Trends in Support of a College Education for Police Officers," March 18, 2004, (, May 6, 2006.



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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