What Happened to Police Education?


There isn’t a single U.S. university that can claim (with a straight face) to have a serious commitment or investment in police higher education. The typical undergraduate degree in criminal justice (or criminology) requires one or two police courses. It is a mile wide and an inch deep.

I try and think in systems – Dr. Deming taught me that — and policing is one of those systems. And while I have focused on recruiting, selecting, training, and leadership within the police system, I find that I have tended to overlook one important systemic ingredient as I pressed our system to produce educated, well-trained, respectful, controlled and collaborative men and women to be our police. That important, overlooked ingredient is the quality of our higher education. I have argued in the past that a college education is a necessary requirement for police who serve in our society.

My university education was vitally important to me. It changed how I looked at the world and how I approached my job as a cop. It helped me go about being the kind of police officer I knew was essential to a free society. It has been glaringly apparent to me that many young men and women graduating from our nation’s system of higher education may not have received the kind of education I experienced.

In the late 60s, as a police officer and graduate student, I strongly argued that the junior college system (which tended to be more vocational in its approach to police education) not be the endpoint of police education. Instead, I argued that we require police applicants to obtain a baccalaureate (4-year) college degree as an entry requirement. I also maintained that their degree be strongly within the liberal arts tradition and not vocational. (By “liberal” I do not mean the political connotation. A good explanation of a liberal education can be found HERE and in this statement:

The phrase liberal education does not refer to a curriculum that contrasts with a conservative education; it refers to a curriculum designed to provide students with the knowledge and abilities to become successful, productive members of a free society. It provides them the opportunity to practice free-thinking. (Remember, liberal as in free, as opposed to constrained or subjugated.) It teaches them how to think critically, communicate clearly, analyze and solve complex problems, appreciate others, understand the physical world, and be prepared to learn continuously so they can work with others and on their own to meet the challenges of the future. [From the above link.]

Many fellow police disagreed with me at that time (although the 1967 President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice did recommend that the goal of police education be the 4-year degree) I still think this is a vital goal.

But having said that, what should police leaders expect their applicants to have achieved during their college education? What should a college-educated police applicant bring to the police department?

In Arrested Development, I described why not achieving this educational standard has been an obstacle to police improvement:

I have no doubt that the attitude which distains formal education and research along with a reliance on coercive leadership are their primary hindrances. I have concluded from my experience and continued observation that this has restrained and arrested their development. It isn’t that there has been no improvement; I began police work without a college education, formal training, body armor or a personal radio. My point is that given the organizational improvements of other institutions in our society, the police have fallen disgracefully behind. Before any institution can improve, it must identify the obstacles in its way. Some of them I’ve already identified, such as the power of the police subculture, the negative legacy of their history, and over-reliance on physical force in the field and in the police station. But there are other major impediments American police must also deal with if they want to catch up and stay in front…  The only way [these obstacles are] going to be overcome is requiring our nation’s police to have an academically rigorous four-year college education before they are sent into the field. In addition, police departments must have an on-going academic relationship with a college or university to bring together academics and practitioners. The two can then work together to develop, test, and share the most effective methods of policing. This would eventually result in police officers spending time in classrooms and doing research and academics teaching in the training academy and walking a beat.

What I expected, and what I thought was happening, during my tenure as a police chief, is that the academic institutions in which I recruited and from which I hired police officers were doing what I expected – that is, the men and women I interviewed were liberally educated (they had studied a variety of academic subjects: history, psychology, sociology, philosophy, pre-law, and even music and art), they were intellectually (and emotionally) mature and inquisitive, had a sound ethical base, and were racially and culturally aware and sensitive. At that time, I thought colleges and universities were doing their job of educating future police officers.

But then, did something happen to change this? Did all that get lost somehow in our post-911 world and successive “wars” on crime and drugs? Or was it as Prof. Gary Cordner suggested in his article in The Journal of Criminal Justice Education (July 26, 2016), “The Unfortunate Demise of Police Education”?

For the last 20-30 years, criminal justice has been one of the fastest-growing fields of study in U.S. higher education and one of the most popular degrees outside of business and education. Most experts and observers agree that this has been a positive trend. Early police programs were deemed too vocational, not appropriate for university-level study. Furthermore, there is philosophical support for the notion that police, who wield the awesome power of the state and hold our liberties in their hands, need a broad liberal arts education, not a narrow vocational one… But there has been an unfortunate consequence of this trend. There isn’t a single U.S. university that can claim (with a straight face) to have a serious commitment or investment in police higher education. The typical undergraduate degree in criminal justice (or criminology) requires one or two police courses. It is a mile wide and an inch deep. At the graduate level, we have hundreds of programs in criminal justice, many without a single police course. The average university criminal justice program has perhaps one faculty member whose specialty is police – the really big ones are fortunate to have two or three. This situation would be easier to swallow if it was still true that there is little or no scientific or academic knowledge base about policing. But the opposite is true. There has been a ton of police research since the 1960s – qualitative and quantitative, basic and applied, operational and administrative, experimental and phenomenological, modern and post-modern, American, British, European, you name it, it’s out there.

This unsettling situation has recently been affirmed by my own recent experience and, for example, by the experiences of two academics who responded to my questioning Tweet:

“Police education: If the mission of higher education is to prepare students to be liberally educated, intellectually mature, ethically aware, and culturally sensitive, how are we doing?”

Here were two quick responses I received:

  • The vocationalization of education is and has found fertile ground with policing. Learning “why” allows one to be able to entertain a variety of responses. Learning “what to do” removes any chance of alternative solutions or freedom of thought. Too many programs focus on “what.” When presented with something, do this. Little or no thought, examination or discussion is afforded why police exist or their role in a free society. Without an agreed upon foundation there can be no building. 
  • Some of the people in criminal justice programs were also in my psychology classes. one student wrote on the final exam: “It is all Tsongas’ fault that we have so many Cambodians in here”…. I went to the department chair but being only adjunct faculty, there was not much I could do to take on Godzilla… What are we teaching when they take up these programs? ATF, ICE, etc.

My point is this: If we serious about improving our nation’s police, to build trust of police in communities of color, for police to be restrained in their use of force, and be fair and respectful to everyone they contact, it is going to take a SYSTEMIC approach to this improvement that also must include a deep look at how our nation’s academic institutions are educating those who wish to be our police.

What has been your experience?


  1. I believe that education should be happening in the force itself, why wait? There are many of us with a masters degree or doctorate in some area that can do service with even a 30 minute class or required on-line program. Let’s put a curriculum together – I would be happy to help.


    1. An idea whose time has come! From a learning organization to one that teaches others — that’s my vision. After all, learning should be lifelong in this century and those to come. Thanks, Sara!


  2. I have a more general comment; my sister has 5 “kids” in Seattle/Tacoma Gig Harbor. They told me about their protest and how the police responded. (I am using “police” loosely). I have written before because as a retired teacher I have noticed a lot of things. Also, I copied out your column about “moral” police and I forwarded it to several people. This is what I am writing to my friends and family today. I see Madison as similar to Austin, Boston, etc. and I enjoyed a quiet summer at the U. Wisconsin Madison when it was a leader in school psychology.

    I am sorry to hear this about tacoma. I know what it can be like in some places. I always think of Austin and Boston and Seattle/Tac as the best places to live to avoid that kind of stuff. they are university cities and have an educated population…. and young people who have sound values… perhaps that is why there was such an attack? I know I have taught psychology courses and we would have students in there with criminal justice majors and one female student wrote on her exam: “It is all Tsongasfault we have so many Cambodians in here” she was referring to a former rep from my state whose wife has also served in congress. but have things changed over the 2 decades or more? have these hate- mongering people mushroomed and are they trained well enough to be in our state police or police force or ATF ? and they move over into ICE now?


  3. a person in my town (not city) who was refused entry to the police because of psychological problems was so angry he went and mjurdered the doctor and staff at the clinic where he had been psychologically tested. When we write a curriculum for training teachers we include attitudes and dispositions. I know there is not 100% science about personality but do you measure any of those attributes? This blog that you write is helpful and I don’t expect you to answer all my questions but maybe there is someone reading who is responsible and accountable for curriculum, training, evaluation, supervision? Out schools are constantly under attack because of what they say is “poor quality”; in my city people say “the schools are lousy in Haverhill”… but if we can get beyond the attacks and try to share some kinds of knowledge or information? would it at least help with the polarization?


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