Christa M. Miller
What are some of the best practices which commanders can utilize to foster millennial officers’ educational aspirations?
It may be an understatement to say that American policing has become exponentially more complex in the decade and a half since 9/11. A greater emphasis on local level homeland security has gone hand in hand with higher demand for better response tactics toward the mentally ill, minority communities and other groups. Agencies need officers who can think their way through situations, rather than rely on traditional training which may, or may not, have prepared them for nuances in behavior or communication.
This preparation can come from a well thought-out college degree program, but many officers struggle to obtain degrees. Not only is college expensive, it can also be difficult to work around shift schedules, court appearances and family commitments. Yet, the better educated officers are, the better position they’re in to become their agencies’ next generation of leaders.
Tuition reimbursement programs help, but even for departments which lack the budget to offer them, it’s possible – and even preferable – for police supervisors and commanders to support officers’ pursuit of higher education through cultural and professional support.
To do that, it’s important to understand four main principles. First, academy training is not a substitute for education. Second, academics have their own limitations, making the right degree program important. Third, commanders need to keep an open mind about officers’ ideas for how to use technology to lead. And, finally, college can help put young officers’ job experiences into perspective, refining and shaping their leadership for the next generation.
Academy Training Is Not Education
Bud Levin, a professor of psychology at Virginia’s Blue Ridge Community College, a visiting scholar with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)’s Quantico-based training division, and a police futurist, emphasizes that academies teach officers more to reduce civil liability than to do their jobs well. “Training delivers only the nuts and bolts of delivery, with a problem- solving curriculum which goes by the book. Instructors read from an outline approved by attorneys so they can defend the officer’s actions, but this isn’t how people get involved in solving problems.”
Rick Myers, Chief of Police in Newport News (Virginia), agrees that the academy may offer the “mechanics” of policing, but can’t train softer skills, “how to have compassion and empathy, how to be a problem solver, to maintain personal and professional integrity, an ethical manner, and good interpersonal relations – or how to train the opposite of those things out,” he says.
“Filling out a report, writing a ticket, understanding the elements of crime, hitting a target, etc. don’t require a specific degree,” adds Myers. “Being able to study and learn, to be inquisitive and a good communicator are more important to officers coming into the job. Most bona fide degree programs will offer those.”
Academic Institutions Have Their Own Limitations
On the other hand, Myers acknowledges, “Simply being well educated is no guarantee of success or competency as a cop.” Some specialties can be developed over time without any college coursework, albeit with “exhaustive” training. With some very technical areas of policing, he says, training may in fact be more important than academic overviews.
Indeed, the right degree program is important. Levin notes that, in many schools, professors and students are far from one another’s realities. “Many institutions are in the position of trying to teach people to be leaders when they don’t know what to be leaders of, while most teachers don’t have the context or perspective in policing they need to teach effectively,” he says.
Furthermore, Levin says that schools may or may not teach what officers need to know about particular issues within their own communities. “No one size fits all,” he says. Even so, when institutions react to what they believe politicians and voters in their communities want for students and education, they may, for example, adopt policies and procedures based on research done in urban environments – even though their own community may be suburban or rural. “What works in Sheboygan may not [work] in Madison,” says Levin, “and the instructors won’t necessarily know why.”
Understand What’s Shaping Tomorrow’s Police Leaders
The short version: In today’s environment, following rules and best practices doesn’t necessarily prepare officers for future scenarios they will face, but neither does any given degree. And so, says Levin, it’s important to hire with an officer’s career ladder in mind, rather than hiring to fill a present-day slot; keeping in mind what you want your agency’s future leaders to look like; and helping them to develop a career which fulfills that vision.
Myers explains that there are many different models of policing, including combat policing, community policing, intelligence-led policing, and the like. However, he adds, “In seeking labels, we tend to overlook the fact that the business we’re in is policing. No one single “model” of policing can be universally applied. The reality is, what officers do out on the street is highly situational and requires adaptation; therefore, depending on the scenario, some, none or all of those models may come into play.”
Myers points to the shooting attacks in San Bernardino, Orlando and Colorado Springs as examples of the need for adaptation. Even so, he says, “Sometimes, people misconstrue that as to mean that we don’t ever have to engage in combative type tactics, when, in reality, while contemporary community or problem oriented policing is considered ‘best practice’ for today’s world, police need to be able to immediately switch into combat orientation in order to preserve their own or innocent citizens’ lives.”
In fact, an advanced education, up to and including graduate school, enables officers to use time to their advantage in a way they may not have in the field: to learn how to work through decisions. “As an officer goes up the ranks, more thorough research and critical thinking on complex topics is required,” he says.
That can carry forward into critical situations. “If they’re adept at practicing intellectual capacity, they can come forward and analyze things more quickly and potentially make better decisions, balancing knowledge with common sense.”
How Technology Is Shaping Young Officers
Also formational for millennial officers’ policing experience, of course, is technology. “High school graduates come to the workplace with a comfort and familiarity with technology that people even with degrees may find themselves unable to replicate or quite understand,” says Myers. “Commanders from the baby boomer generation may be uncomfortable or unaware of some of the technology which is available now.”
This is, he adds, as much generational as academic. He likens it to the technology available as he started his law enforcement career 40 years ago. “Portable radios had just begun to be issued to officers, but the old-timers didn’t want to be bothered using them; they went on relying on the lightbar’s exterior speakers.”
Nowadays, smartphones have more computing power than the first desktop computers. Indeed, says Glen Woodbury, Director of the Center for Homeland Defense and Security (CHDS) at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS), younger officers can be defensive about older officers’ criticism of Twitter or their mobile phone usage. “They may be receiving an unfair or uninformed assessment of their use of the technologies that are second, if not first, nature to them,” he says.
This lack of awareness can lead to friction between officers seeking to get the job done and older commanders who are – rightly or overly – concerned with potential negative unintended outcomes. For example, says Tim Hardiman, AVP of American Military University’s Law Enforcement Outreach, “Police technology tends to be so locked down that it becomes necessary to teach investigators how to obtain and then secure the hardware they need to conduct certain investigations,” such as those on the so-called “dark web,” which is necessarily inaccessible through approved police channels.
In this regard, millennials’ penchant for asking “why?” may be especially valuable. Hardiman, who retired from the New York City Police Department with the rank of Inspector, points out, “This isn’t a toddler’s ‘how come?’ whine, but curiosity, a genuine interest in learning how and why a way of doing this is important.”
It’s an outlook which, says Woodbury, enables younger officers to admit what they don’t know. “Growing up with social networks and on demand information,” he says, “they’ve learned to collaborate and seek more data as their default, so they are generally more outgoing, more open with their opinions and thoughts, and often more accepting of learning new concepts.”
Indeed, says Myers, when it comes to obtaining college degrees, some specialization is critical – for example, when staffing a cybercrime unit. “You need investigators who become subject matter experts on the recovery and analysis of digital evidence who can pursue the digital footprint of crimes,” he says.
If anything, the way the students go about their community involvement – using social media and related technology – makes them better prepared to use media and to lead in a way which benefits law enforcement and their communities overall. Says Heather Issvoran, Director of Strategic Communications for the CHDS, “They understand the online environment and are in a better position to help the public understand the reasoning for something without detracting from the mission.”
Developing the Next Generation of Police Leaders
Technology, culture and other complications of law enforcement is driving some degree programs to explore new models which encourage critical thinking and problem solving.
Issvoran notes that, in her experience, millennial officers’ interest in, and passion for, law enforcement is as strong as ever, if not stronger because these students “want to make a difference.” In her view, the generational predilection toward collaboration and consensus is a positive for programs like CDHS’, because it enables students to communicate much more effectively than more traditional, siloed officers and agencies. “We’ve really found that cross-disciplinary information sharing is much more seamless,” she explains.
Creating an Environment Conducive to Learning
Myers believes there is more value in supporting higher education than not. “Clearly we are in a cycle where it’s become challenging to recruit police officers,” he acknowledges. “Many are struggling with vacancies. Some are reacting by eliminating their education requirement.”
However, he adds, this is not a healthy long-term strategy. “When you look for a quick fix by dropping any one standard – which was the result of careful thought to start with – you may get one or two full academy classes, but over the long term, five to ten years, you can expect unintended consequences such as breakdowns in integrity issues.”
The answer: Rather than lower standards, work harder to get the word out, to attract multifaceted candidates who fit those standards. Furthermore, rather than give in to the temptation to think that a degree will drive officers off to bigger departments or even the private sector, cultivate leaders who can help shape realistic policing for the 21st century.
To prevent “brain drain,” says Hardiman, it’s important to make the police department “a good place to work.” Millennials expect to have more than one job over the course of their careers, he notes, and they’re more open to changing careers as well as jobs.
In fact, says Woodbury, encouraging degree program participation is a good means of retention. “Younger people seek more information and knowledge, including how and why to look at things, and what other ways there are to look at them,” he says.
To be sure, the financial aspect of higher education is critical. Myers’ three adult children all incurred debt as part of their college experience. “The price tag is so significant that a lot of young folks face a tough choice between debt and opting to go into the workforce before completing their degree,” he says. “But, even then, police leadership can work with, and help, employees.”
Many departments, including Newport News’, have tuition assistance. Even if they cannot offer full reimbursement, they can often provide some assistance on tuition. Coupled with work schedule flexibility – which, Myers says, must support shift supervisors as well as the students themselves – this can help encourage officers to attend school.
Shift coverage is only one part of broader structural support which an agency can offer, though. “If someone disagrees with their chief that higher education support is valuable, that person can single-handedly disrupt and undermine culture,” says Myers.
His answer is to foster support from a department’s first level leadership – its shift supervisors – what he believes is the “most critical position” in an agency. “We have to be able to translate and operationalize our vision into how we work every day,” he says, noting that the Newport News Police Department brings its supervisors on a twice annual retreat to engage them in talking about their leadership.
The retreat is part of Myers’ effort to “create an organizational climate or culture that is supportive and values employees, including trying to work with them to have latitude for schedule flexibility to pursue career development, education and personal growth,” he says. “Those supervisors who embrace that will make it happen at their level.”
And this, says Levin, is imperative to policing in the 21st century. “As physical and social technologies change rapidly, expertise has a short and decreasing shelf life,” he says. “Thus, the need for officers – and the rest of us – to either resign ourselves to encroaching obsolescence or commit to becoming lifelong and independent learners.”
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.