The Importance of Continuing Education for Cops
Sgt. Betsy Brantner Smith
When I became a cop in 1980 many of the veteran officers made fun of the new recruits who had college degrees. We heard things like “What are you going to do in that bar fight, Rookie, hit ‘em with your diploma?!” And to be honest, at the time I really didn’t see how my four year degree in “Law Enforcement Administration” was going to be particularly helpful either. Higher education wasn’t going to help me learn how to shoot, how to fight, or how to catch bad guys…or was it?
Putting Pen to Paper
The reality of law enforcement is that we use our pens and our laptops far more than we ever use of guns. While firearms proficiency may save our life someday on the street, the ability to put words on paper in a cohesive and comprehendible manner may someday save our butt in court, or at least make our day to day existence as a crimefighter easier. All those term papers and essay tests you slaved over in college will make completing the narrative on that residential burglary report so much easier. Defense attorneys often defend a case based on the quality of the police report, including the officer’s ability to document his or her investigation, the defendant’s actions, and the elements of the offenses charged. A prosecutor may decide not to take an otherwise airtight case because the police reports are substandard. The judge, the defense attorney and the prosecutor all have higher education, should you?
There is Something To Be Said for “Life Experience”
Thirty or more years ago the majority of cops came from the ranks of the armed forces. Military veterans generally made great police recruits not only because they were accustomed to rank structure, shift work and the handling of various weapons, but most of them had spent time in the military traveling, dealing with difficult situations, witnessing tragedy and hardship, and working well under adverse conditions. Most veterans of the armed services also come to police work with an inherent sense of service to the community and to the country; a welcome attitude in any police department. While college certainly cannot be compared to a tour in the Army (or the Navy, Air Force, Marines, or the Coast Guard) college certainly helps prepare you for dealing with deadlines, bosses, and difficult co-workers; it can also teach you how to deal with bureaucracy, live on your own, and make decisions that have long-term consequences. The military encourages their personnel to pursue advanced degrees, so it makes sense that law enforcement should adopt similar standards.
The Degree is More Important Than the Major
My college degree is in law enforcement, and yet I tell everyone I talk to who is considering police work as a career to get a degree in anything other than law enforcement or criminal justice. Those degrees can be helpful, but when deciding on your field of study, go with your interests. I know cops who have degrees in engineering, nursing, accounting, physical therapy, education, even astronomy! Don’t take college classes just to enhance yourself as a police candidate, but rather to enhance yourself as a long-term employee. A degree in physical education or coaching is going to make you one heck of a defensive tactics instructor some day. Studying algebra, geometry and physics is going to make you unbeatable as an accident reconstructionist. Taking classes in management, psychology and human performance will increase your chances of becoming a good supervisor or a manager. Cops need to know a lot about so many things, and a liberal arts degree may give you a great base to continue your training and education after you get that gun and badge. The legendary Admiral James Stockdale believed that the better your education the better you would be at dealing with the difficulty. This after spending 10 years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam and observing both how his fellow prisoners and how he dealt with the stress of torture, solitary confinement and betrayal.
Continuing Your Education While You Serve
One of the few bright spots in this economy is that more and more colleges and universities are offering convenient ways to continue your education while you work, raise your family, and even have a little fun on the side. Many colleges have intensive programs that don’t follow a traditional “semester” schedule, others offer classes during non-traditional hours, and the online educational opportunities, like the University of Phoenix, are practically endless! Our oldest son, who is currently enlisted as a Naval corpsman, is finishing his college degree via the Internet so regardless of his future deployment, he can complete his education. There are also a number of colleges who offer degree programs specifically for first responders, and many of those give “live experience” credit hours for some of your law enforcement training and experience. Many colleges offer financial aid, and many police agencies provide tuition reimbursement, so do some research and take advantage of these programs while you can!
One of the first great detectives was the mythical Sherlock Holmes who combined his tremendous ability to observe with his broad and in-depth knowledge of things both mundane and exceptional to come to critical conclusions about evidence, suspects, and investigations in general. In this case fiction lead the way to many of the techniques used today, but the human component of an individual who constantly seeks to learn and understand the world around him or her is one of the great traits of almost every outstanding investigator, agent, and leader in law enforcement.