Do college grads make better cops?

"Our latest results on police views might lead one to question whether a college education is beneficial for officers," says William Terrill. (Credit: istolethetv/Flickr)

College-educated police officers are more likely to be dissatisfied with their job. But they are less likely to use force on citizens, a new study shows.

The research, which paints a broad picture of both the negative and positive effects of higher education on policing, also shows cops with a degree may have negative views of their supervisors. They’re also less likely to favor community policing, a strategy aimed partly at reducing the number of deadly police-citizen incidents that currently dominate the headlines.

“Our latest results on police views might lead one to question whether a college education is beneficial for officers,” says William Terrill, professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University.

Less force

“But our research is a mixed bag, and you have to take into account the behavioral effect as well. If you use less force on individuals, your police department is going to be viewed as more legitimate and trustworthy and you’re not going to have all the protests we’re having across the country.”

High-profile police incidents have sparked protests from Los Angeles to Miami. The incidents include the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen, in Ferguson, Missouri, and the case of Eric Garner, who died after being put in a chokehold by police in New York. Grand juries failed to indict the officers involved in both incidents.

More than 2,100 officers

The latest study, published in the Journal of Criminal Justice Education, is an analysis of survey data from 2,109 police officers in seven mid-sized to large police departments across the United States.

While none of the departments require a four-year degree, 45 percent of the officers in the study have a degree anyway. Half of the officers had majored in criminal justice; the rest had degrees in disciplines such as psychology and business. The type of degree did not affect officers’ negative views on job satisfaction or their supervisors.

Job dissatisfaction might stem partly from the fact that college-educated officers who join the force wanting to make a genuine difference in society are instead met with the reality of patrolling high-crime areas at night, Terrill says.

“We’re throwing the least experienced officers into the most difficult situations simply because of their lack of seniority,” he says. “It’s like taking someone right out of medical school and asking them to perform heart surgery.”


Further, college graduates are used to solving problems and debating issues, and might not like the old school, by-the-book mentality of many police administrators.

“For those departments that hire college grads,” Terrill says, “I think you have to be more open-minded as a police administrator and understand who it is you’re bringing in.”

Today’s policing, “is much more about social work than it is law enforcement. It’s about resolving low-level disputes, dealing with loiterers, and so on.”

While criminal justice remains a hot major, many degree-granting programs—particularly online programs—are technical in nature and don’t foster the analytical skills found in the social sciences.

“There are a lot of so-called ‘cop shops’ out there that aren’t that very academically rigorous,” Terrill says.

Additional researchers from Michigan State University and the University of Central Florida are coauthors of the study.

Source: Michigan State University