Consider the following two scenarios. No.1: Needing major surgery, you go to your physician for his expert advice only to learn that he minored in medicine due to the uncertainty of the healthcare industry. His major was in psychology. He does have a good bedside manner though. No. 2: You walk into an attorney’s office after being unfairly sued hoping to acquire legal protection of your assets. As you wait for your consultation, you notice that the diploma hanging from the wall is for an MBA. He isn’t much of an attorney, but he sure knows how to manage his own assets gained from a lucrative legal environment.
Obviously, the above examples are purely hypothetical and could never happen due to laws governing the practice of medicine and law. But with the growing demands and complexities of law enforcement, I’m wondering why the following scenario continues to play itself out over and over again: Two eager young men approach a veteran police officer and share that they’re both interested in a career in law enforcement. When asked about their preparations to achieve their career objective both state that they’re planning on going to a local university and taking some criminal justice classes, but their major will be in something like business. When the veteran officer asks why they aren’t majoring in criminal justice, both state that other police officers advised them not to get degrees in police administration or justice in case they want to do something else down the road.
Although we aren’t practicing brain surgery or arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court, law enforcement is a challenging profession with the highest of stakes—law, order and homeland security. Law enforcement is funded by billions of taxpayer dollars, tasked with addressing serious life and death issues, and has statutory authority to take a human life under certain conditions.
Yet we continue to give the same advice to those seeking higher education: “Major in business, marketing or basket weaving.” Then we wonder why so many law enforcement agencies are still mired in policing that’s based on tradition and not research and guided by limited personal opinion rather than evidence-based practice.
My criticism is general and probably unfair to the many dedicated law enforcement officers who either lack a degree or majored in a field other than criminal justice. My purpose isn’t to needlessly offend, but to call for law enforcement to rethink the continued validity of the advice that was once so prevalent: to steer those desiring a career in law enforcement away from obtaining college degrees in the field of criminal justice and administration.
It was my college education, and specifically, graduate studies at the University of Central Missouri (formerly known as Central Missouri State University) that quickened my mind to the police innovations of hot-spots policing and the broken windows concept. If these concepts are new to you, I rest my case. High learning also made me painfully aware of the shortcomings of community policing as it’s practiced and the elements that must be addressed if it’s to have any impact on addressing real crime and disorder problems.
The Benefits of Academic Learning
So, a fair question is this: With the resources available in print and electronic form, did I need to expend the effort and money in gaining a degree? Probably not. The real question that begs an answer, however, is whether I would have acquired the knowledge without the imposed discipline of an academic institution.
A criticism that I have heard over the years is the seeming gap between criminal justice research and criminal justice practice. Could it be that this gap exists, in part, because law enforcement leaders have failed to pay attention to the available knowledge of higher criminal justice education and its applicability on the current practice of their agency? Hot-spots policing is a case in point. Weisburd and Braga (2006) state that:
“Hot-spots policing is a model for the integration of research in the world of policing, and this integration has produced what is, according to empirical evidence, the most effective police innovation of the last decade (p. 239).”
Any agency that isn’t applying some form of hot spots policing has missed a major finding in academic research. The National Academy of Sciences panel states: “(S)tudies that focused police resources on crime hot spots provide the strongest collective evidence of police effectiveness that is now available. On the basis of a series of randomized experimental studies, we conclude that the practice described as hot-spots policing is effective in reducing crime and disorder and can achieve these reductions without significant displacement of crime control benefits. Indeed the research evidence suggests that the diffusion of crime control benefits to areas surrounding treated hot spots is stronger than any displacement outcome.” (Committee to Review Research, 2004: p. 250)
Law enforcement leaders who engage higher education can also influence the future focus of academia and scholarly research. Some liberal criminologists, due to their bias toward macro theories, have concluded that modern policing has a minimal influence on crime rates. But the success achieved by law enforcement agencies using innovative practices like hot-spots policing, CompStat or broken windows not only spawns controversy within academia, it causes researchers to explore these innovations more in-depth, ultimately transforming the paradigms in which law enforcement agencies operate.
So the next time you have the opportunity, encourage those eager young men and women interested in a career in law enforcement, as well as your experienced officers considering higher education: “Major in criminal justice and minor in basket weaving. Improve law enforcement for the next generation!”
Capt. Gary Hoelzer works for the Town and Country Police Department in St. Louis, Mo.
Police Innovation: Contrasting Perspectives. Edited by Weisburd, D.; Braga, Anthony. Cambridge University Press (2006). Part VI: Hot spots policing.
Committee to Review Research on Police Policy and Practices. (2004). Fairness and effectiveness in policing: The evidence. Washington, DC: National Academic Press.
You Have Options
Getting your degree or continuing your education has never been more convenient. Following are a few options.
American Military University
University of Maryland College
Penn State University
University of Phoenix
Columbia Southern University
University Of Cincinnati
California University of Pennsylvania
University of Louisville