College and Cops: Springboard Your Success in Law Enforcement
Sergeant Betsy Brantner Smith
When I decided to become a cop, I was dismayed to learn that most of the departments I was interested in required me to be twenty one years old to even apply. I was thirteen at the time, so waiting eight more years to realize my dream seemed almost inconceivable. After graduating high school at 18, I decided that if I had to wait three more years to start pursuing a police career I may as well wait it out in college. That was one of the best decisions I ever made, and I continued my criminal justice education long after I got my badge and gun. Whether you’re just out of high school, you’re looking to change careers, or you’re already a veteran cop looking to get ahead. here are just a few of the reasons why you should pursue a criminal justice education to enhance your law enforcement career.
Many agencies now require a college degree. There is a long-standing argument in law enforcement about whether or not a formal education will make you a better cop. There are so many things that factor into your success as a law enforcement professional but a criminal justice degree can only enhance your chances of reaching your full potential. Agencies that require you to have a college diploma tend to be more progressive, but even if a degree is not required, having one is probably going to give you an edge over other candidates. If you’re already on the job but looking to get ahead, a criminal justice degree or an advanced master’s in criminal justice may be just the thing that puts you at the top of the promotional list or may provide you with the credentials to move from your current department on to bigger and better things.
Competition is fierce, and a criminal justice degree gives you an edge.
A degree shows potential employers that you have the drive and commitment to pursue and complete a serious goal. You learn how to study properly, conduct research, write papers, process information, and work well with other people. And there are so many degrees and areas of study; you can obtain a basic degree in criminal justice, or study police management, crime scene technology, and even terrorism studies. In fact, most agencies are more interested in the fact that you have a degree than what your field of study is, so pursue courses that truly interest you. I majored in Law Enforcement Administration but I double-minored in English and, believe it or not, Horse Husbandry. All three fields of study have come in handy during my three decades as a cop, a police trainer and an author, and they were all a lot of fun to study. Work hard at your core courses, but also study something, or many things, that you’re passionate or curious about.
College and life experience.
Ask any police recruiter what their top five frustrations are and most of them will list a candidate’s “lack of life experience” as one of them. Most young people are living with their parents well into their 20’s and if they haven’t been to college or served in the military, they may lack basic adult experiences that help young people grow and mature. Remember, police departments are hiring candidates that must be able to make million-dollar, life and death decisions — and if you’ve yet to make it out of your parents’ basement, you may be perceived by a recruiter as immature or unready to carry a gun and a badge. If you’re in a position to leave home to pursue your education, do it! It’s a great experience.
Police Work and Technology.
Law enforcement is no different than any other enterprise, we live and die by technology and we’re always looking for experts among our own ranks. A state college, an online university, a technical institute or even your local community college is a great place to become that expert. From investigating computer crimes to setting up an intelligence database for your agency, making computer sciences a part of your undergraduate or advanced degree is a great way to make you more marketable and more promotable. If you’re already a cop (or a dispatcher or other civilian employee) working at an agency that is having a hard time making the transition into the 21st century technologically, take some classes and be that change agent!
Networking, internships, and relationships.
Most of us make contacts and develop friendships in college that last a lifetime, both personally and professionally. If you’re just out of high school, college may seem like an endless opportunity to socialize and have fun, but be smart about it. Holding your fraternity’s record for freshman year “minor in possession” citations is not going to impress your police recruiter, but the organizing their annual Special Olympics fundraiser just might. Get involved in student government, volunteer organizations, and seek out like-minded people who are serious about their criminal justice education and their future. If an internship is part of your graduation requirement, work hard, do more than is expected, and treat it like your job, not just another way to earn credits. If you’re a full time cop going back to school, networking can be a bit more difficult, but take advantage of study groups and online forums not only to help you learn the material, but to widen your inner circle.
In these tough economic times, going after that diploma can sometimes seem too expensive and too time-consuming. This is where your “winning mindset” comes in. Look hard for grants, scholarships, financial aid and programs developed especially for working adults with limited free time. If you can’t take classes full time, taking even one class each semester, online or on campus, will add up faster than you think and before you know it, you’ll be on your way to earning that criminal justice degree. Good luck!