When Police Education Fails

If the mission of police education is to prepare students to be liberally (broadly) educated, intellectually mature, ethically aware, and culturally sensitive, what happens when that doesn’t happen?

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As a police leader, I championed the merits of college-educated cops and preferred them whenever possible in hiring and promotion. To me, educated cops mattered.

As I went about leading police departments for a quarter of a century, I never questioned how police were being educated. I had assumed that a 4-year college degree incorporated the same broad experiences and education I did when I was a university student. It is not an overstatement for me to say that my university education changed my life and made me a better cop!

Now, after teaching prospective police officers for the past two years I find myself worrying about something I had never worried about before — how and what universities are teaching those wishing to become police officers.

When I began teaching again I was encouraged by the values of the university and the mission of the criminal justice department which professed:

The Criminal Justice Department is committed to preparing our students to move successfully into criminal justice careers or postgraduate work as people who are: liberally educated, intellectually mature, ethically aware, and culturally sensitive.

Now, having left the university, I understand what Prof. Gary Cordner was talking about when he wrote the following article in 2014 in the Journal of Criminal Justice Education, “The Monster that Ate 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… 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… I am not saying that today’s police are ignorant or uneducated, but rather they’ve never been taught the knowledge base of their own professional field. And the fault is not really theirs. Higher education has failed them. In America, criminal justice is the monster that ate police education… Let’s get serious about teaching the police what we’ve learned over the past 50 years about policing

Let’s do that. Let’s get serious about how we educate those who wish to become our police. Let’s make sure those who are teaching and preparing our police actually teach what they espouse:

  • To provide a broad education to their students.
  • To help them develop intellectual maturity.
  • To create ethical awareness in their students.
  • To internalize within their students a strong, cultural sensitivity.

These are necessary building blocks for educated police (and I might add to this group the understanding of race and racism, possession of high emotional intelligence, strong self-control, and awareness of the more negative aspects of police subculture).

Each of these is important to the career of a professional police officer in a free and democratic society. It is necessary that police candidates internalize these values during their university education — and before they enter the police academy.

Higher education must not fail those who wish to become our police and police leaders need to be aware not only of what is being taught in the police academy, but also in the university.