How to Advance Your 21st Century Policing Career Through Higher Education Part 1

Christa Miller

Whether you’re a high school graduate seeking a two year or four year degree, or you’ve begun to seek a graduate or postgraduate degree, it’s likely you’re doing so because you’ve committed to law enforcement as more than just a job.

However, it’s also likely that, as a Millennial or Generation X officer, your commitment looks a little different than your older colleagues’.  Effectively demonstrating the value of a different path requires a good plan for your career, including a careful assessment of where law enforcement stands currently; where it’s likely to head; what you’ll need to help get it there; and, finally, what kinds of degree programs might give you those tools.

A Changing Professional Environment

Glen Woodbury, Director of the Center for Homeland Defense and Security

(CHDS) at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS), says that, from his observations as an emergency manager, “Twenty years ago, standard operating procedures and plans were relatively simple to create and follow, and these ‘by the book’ solutions worked in most scenarios.”

Today, however, the students Woodbury sees encounter complexity earlier in their careers than they might have a generation ago. For example, newer threats like active shooters and older ones like officer-involved shootings, both occur more frequently. New technology can carry hidden challenges, such as the balance between public safety and privacy in data retention, or evidence gathering practices which have been neither tested in court nor covered by SOP.

It’s clear, therefore, that SOPs and plans aren’t always as adaptable to on the fly decision-making as a well educated officer in the field. “What we’ve called ‘best’ practices in the past are probably better referred to now as ‘smart’ or ‘emergent’ practices, as we find there are more possible correct solutions than just the one or two our history and experiences might tell us,” Woodbury says.

Lt. Zach Perron, Public Affairs Manager for the Palo Alto (California) Police Department and a graduate of the CHDS program, agrees. “Law enforcement is not a black-and-white profession,” Perron says. “The value of a formal degree is that it helps the officer learn how to think better, to evaluate all the different perspectives in any given issue.”

Tim Hardiman, AVP of AMU’s Law Enforcement Outreach, points out that training alone likely isn’t adequate, especially when the courts often adapt years behind police leaders. “The police academy tells the officer what to do, but not why. Therefore, when they encounter a situation which the academy didn’t prepare them for, and which has no SOP, an education enables them to make the best possible decision for themselves, the civilians involved and the agency.”

Woodbury adds, “We’re finding that it’s starting to become necessary to teach knowledge outside the SOPs earlier in officers’ careers, to introduce complex decision- making skills sooner.” These skills end up having a range of applications in an officer’s day-to-day job. Not only street decisions, but also longer term, strategic decisions – everything from writing new SOPs, to investing in new technology – become easier to identify and make.

As officers begin to move up the chain of command, adds Hardiman, the right Masters of Public Administration or even Business Administration degree can make it easier for them to understand how budgets are developed, to continue to communicate needs in terms of both the agency’s broader mission, and what it means for a city or county beyond that.

Finally, one of the most important ways a degree can prepare a police officer, in Perron’s eyes, is by helping the officer to obtain a broader understanding of where law enforcement fits in public safety. “Cross-disciplinary collaboration is the next wave of leadership in public safety,” he says. “Cops are used to solving problems by themselves, but they increasingly need to understand how to invite others in who may have additional pieces to a better solution.”

Obtaining a Degree for the New Millennium

Degrees can be especially important in communities like Palo Alto, the part of Silicon Valley which houses Stanford University, where officers routinely encounter technology executives. “We look for officers who can communicate at that level,” says Perron, “who can demonstrate professionalism and fairness through their interactions, and communicate why they are doing something if needed.”

Therefore, even though the agency requires no degree, most recruits arrive for their interviews with either two year or four year diplomas in hand, or military experience. Indeed, Hardiman says, a degree can help you to differentiate amid a field of other applicants for the same position.

It’s standard for law enforcement officers to obtain degrees in criminal justice or criminology; public administration; or, more recently, emergency management or homeland security. Intelligence studies can be valuable to those who want to lead a fusion center or high level investigations, while programs which prepare leaders to transition into public safety or emergency management leadership roles can be valuable, too.

However, these types of degrees aren’t strictly necessary. Perron, a graduate of the CHDS program, says that officers’ degrees at the PAPD vary widely. “We have officers with degrees in political science, history, theology, psychology, business,” he says, “including three with law degrees who were practicing attorneys before they joined the department.”

If an undergraduate education confers knowledge, says Woodbury, then a graduate degree offers the framework for how to apply and even create that knowledge, priming the officer for more effective leadership at multiple levels: supervisory or command level experience in specialized units, for instance, as a public information officer, or a role in a multidisciplinary setting such as a fusion center.

Indeed, since the CHDS’ inception in 2002, Woodbury says a multidisciplinary approach to policing is now the norm rather than the exception. “We’re able to start teaching at a higher level without having to start from scratch because students arrive expecting this approach,” he says. “So, it’s easier to impart that diversity is the foundation of creativity.”

Evaluating a Degree Program

“Most cops think that paying for a degree is their biggest challenge,” says Hardiman, “and it’s important to seek out lower cost institutions like AMU. However, time is also a factor. Obtaining a degree is a time-consuming process, so you need the flexibility to learn on your own schedule.” Asynchronous classrooms like the ones AMU offers allow officers to take classes whenever and wherever it’s convenient for family obligations, shift rotations, court appearances, or other conflicts you encounter on any given day.

Another benefit to an online degree program is the ability to gain exposure to people from around the country and from other fields, such as firefighters, military, medical, or other professionals with whom they might expect to work during times of crisis. For example, the CHDS Master’s degree program combines online learning with a low residency requirement for students from rural, urban and in-between agencies to come to either the Monterey (California) or the National Capital Region campuses and meet for two weeks out of each quarter.

Not all programs are created equal, so that quality is just as important as flexibility and cost. Bud Levin, a professor of psychology at Virginia’s Blue Ridge Community College, a visiting scholar with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)’s Behavioral Analysis Unit 5 and Critical Incident Response Group, and a police futurist, observes, “Most teachers don’t have the perspective in policing that would enable them to provide full context. Even when they do, policing in the US is so heterogeneous that teachers may not be able to fully anticipate students’ needs.”

A lower quality degree may serve only to enable a prospective promotional candidate to obtain a piece of paper to meet a requirement. However, this doesn’t necessarily prepare the officer for leadership and, in many cases, may actually be detrimental. “Lots of people get promoted,” says Issvoran, “but a degree program should be about teaching them to think more critically, more expansively about problems their community is [facing].”

Therefore, if you’re considering obtaining a degree, think first about what it is you want out of policing. “Many agencies are hiring to fill an empty slot they have now, not to advance a career,” says Levin. In other words, the onus for career advancement is on the officer. Few degree programs adequately prepare students for the future as more than just a reflection of the present.

Preparing for a Degree Program

Part of thinking about getting a degree is deciding what problem it is you want to solve. Issvoran stresses that the CHDS focus is on strategy and policy. “We seek current and emerging leaders who want to think more critically and collaboratively about homeland security; who are already successful at the tactical and operational aspects of their jobs; and who want to solve problems they see in their communities.”

Frequently, the real-world problems these officers have identified become their Master’s thesis. “We want students to return able to educate their agency and community about the problem and what they’ve determined it will take to solve it,” says Issvoran. This is, she adds, why the program is fully sponsored: It’s intended to build a cadre of leaders who create strategy and policy for their agencies on the local, state, tribal, territorial, and federal levels.

Issvoran recommends seeking out the kinds of groups or environments which help start to facilitate strategic policy level thinking. Fusion centers, critical infrastructure or environmental protection committees and other interagency groups are all good candidates. “We look for officers who are good at what they do,” she says, “who can articulate how they think about problems they see, can synthesize information, and reach out across agencies to effect change.”

This, Woodbury says, can matter more to a graduate program than simply reviewing an officer’s awards or other career highlights. “We don’t teach students to solve specific problems as much as we enable them to solve larger, more complex categories of issues,” Woodbury explains. “This is much more valuable to them and their agencies in the long term.”

Most of all, he adds, it’s important for officers to let go of their biases – everyone has them – and be open to challenges. “People’s truths can be limited to the narratives formed by their own experience,” he says, “so we look for students who can put that aside long enough to look at evidence, data and other pieces of information to help adjust those narratives.”

Whether an officer is just entering law enforcement, or advancing to specialized or supervisory roles, obtaining a degree demonstrates a commitment to a law enforcement career. Hardiman says it shows that an applicant for a new position or a promotion thinks of policing as a profession, not just a trade.

“When you’re applying for a new job or promotion, talk about your time management skills,” Hardiman adds. “Demonstrate how you could do your job and still complete your homework, exams and research. Talk about the tech skills you needed to attend an online school. Talk about your budgeting and money management skills.”

By showing how personal skills like these extend into the professional sphere, says Issvoran, “a degree can help rising law enforcement and corrections leaders to do their jobs better.”

Christa M. Miller is a freelance writer and consultant based in South Carolina. Since 2001, she has been writing about public safety issues, ranging from policy and procedure to the use of high tech in law enforcement.


Tips on Preparing to Enter a College Degree Program

  1. Make a plan for the degree you want to pursue, whether it’s law enforcement related or might stand as part of a backup plan if law enforcement doesn’t work out for some reason.
  2. Attend conferences and speak to college representatives. Look for schools which bring students with them to speak with candidates. Be prepared to ask questions about program requirements and demands, as well as different degree programs.
  3. Understand that not all schools are created equal; some are more selective than others, so choosing the right school for you should be tied to your overall educational and career goals.
  4. Evaluate not just time and money requirements, but also program quality, including how often the school updates its curriculum, what kinds of courses are offered and what kinds of research the faculty are publishing – whether they’re exploring topic areas of interest to you or which are especially relevant to your field or your region.
  5. Find out whether your agency offers tuition reimbursement and, if so, whether there are strings attached. Although many agencies which reimburse officers require job-related degrees, some, says Hardiman, are beginning to reimburse for degrees in subjects like computer science, mental health and even international relations.
  6. Find a mentor. Woodbury notes that 1800 of CHDS’ alumni now work in communities across the nation. These alumni don’t just remain connected to their own classes; they’re part of a larger network.
  7. Be prepared to let some hobbies fall by the wayside. Even online programs can be rigorous; completing a course on time demands discipline.
  8. Be ready to read and write a lot, to test assumptions through different sources and to communicate those conclusions in writing.

Why Get a Nontraditional Degree?

Some degrees can help a police department’s mission, as well as make a candidate more marketable for a potential post-career transition:

Computer science or information technology degrees have a broad range of applicability which could enable an officer to secure the agency’s information systems, obtain a better foundation for examining digital evidence, program a new app, or even better understand and prepare for newer technologies, like artificial intelligence and augmented or virtual reality.

Data science programs can prepare officers to understand how to collect and analyze data for intelligence or statistical purposes, while a business degree can help officers think in terms of justifying costs and benefits of various types of tools and procedures, as well as programs and units within an agency.

Psychology or related degrees can enable officers not only to determine the best ways to approach people with mental, physical or developmental disabilities, but also to develop better strategies and policies to guide other officers in their approaches. Meanwhile, cultural and language degrees might help officers interested in a community-policing approach to new immigrant or religious populations.

Nontraditional degrees give you a perspective which you can bring to future degree programs, as well. In fact, together with other factors, it can make you more att active to highly selective programs like the CHDS degree program. “We bring together students who can learn from one another,” says Heather Issvoran, Director of Strategic Communications for the CHDS. “If the nontraditional degree brings another perspective to the classroom, then that helps.”