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Cops and College: Do Police Need Book Smarts?

• September 02, 2010 • 5:00 AM

Better-educated police officers resort less often to using force, research shows.

Weighing in on a long-simmering dispute, a recent study for the Police Quarterly shows that officers with some college education are less likely to resort to force than those who never attend college.

The study found no difference with respect to officer education when it came to arrests or searches of suspects. But it found that in encounters with crime suspects, officers with some college education or a four-year degree resorted to using force 56 percent of the time, while officers with no college education used force 68 percent of the time. “Force” included verbally threatening suspects, grabbing or punching them, using mace or pepper spray, hitting suspects with a baton, handcuffing, throwing to the ground, or pointing or firing a gun at them.

“Up until now, the studies have been much more anecdotal, indicating that education may matter,” said William Terrill, an associate professor of criminal justice at Michigan State and a co-author of the study. “We found that a college education significantly reduces the likelihood of force occurring. The difference is real. It truly is because the officer was more educated, not because the suspect was more resistant.”

Arrests, searches and the use of force are the “big three” decision-making points for police officers. The Michigan State study was the first to look simultaneously at all three vis-à-vis officer education. It found that education did not make much difference when it came to arrests and searches, confirming a number of other studies in the field. Arrests and searches are more constrained by law than the use of force.

“There’s so much more discretion with the use of force and more room for biases to play out,” Terrill said. “High-school educated officers are more apt to say, ‘I’m the law and I have the authority to make you do it, and I’m going to put my hands on you and make you do it.’ Officers with a four-year degree are more skilled at resolving problems without having to resort to force. They’re giving the citizen alternative means of compliance. They’re not just relying on the stick.”

The schooling of police officers has been the subject of debate in the U.S. since the early 1900s, when only one of every 10 officers graduated from high school. Since the 1930s, several high-profile national commissions have since recommended that departments consider higher education as a requirement for employment as a way to “professionalize” the police force and improve its public image.

In the 1960s, as police clashed with civil rights activists, students and minorities across the U.S., a number of commissions went so far as to recommend that all officers obtain a four-year degree within the next decade. By 1970, the government was providing federal funding so that colleges and universities could create curriculum for police — a major boost for educational reform. Individual officers also received federal funding through their departments to attend college.

Yet police departments have been slow to change. As reported in a Bureau of Justice Statistics study from 2003, 83 percent of all U.S. police agencies require a high school diploma, but only 8 percent require some college. Only 1 percent of police agencies require a four-year college degree.

Critics of a college requirement have argued that policing is more a craft than a profession and is best learned on the streets. Police administrators may want their officers to be representative of the communities they serve. They may worry that requiring a degree might discriminate against minority candidates, though there is some evidence that non-white officers tend to be more highly educated than white officers. Cost, too, may be a factor.

There are more than 18,000 police agencies in the United States, and more than half of them are in rural areas with fewer than 10 officers, Terrill said. Rural police agencies rarely have a college requirement, but even in mid-to-large U.S. cities, departments with college requirements “still wouldn’t approach 30 or 40 percent,” he said, adding what holds them back is the lack of tangible evidence that higher education makes for better policing.

“Somewhat surprisingly, there’s not a great deal of research,” Terrill said. “What there is is a lot of is rhetoric. There’s a lot of discussion about the education of officers but not a lot of science around it.”

At the same time, requirements aside, many officers have sought college on their own. A national survey of 250,000 officers in 1988 found that 23 percent had attended college, up from only 9 percent in 1974.

Past studies on the merits of a college education for police officers have been mixed. Some have found that college-educated officers hold less authoritarian beliefs than officers with no college, get higher ratings from their superiors and fewer complaints from citizens, take fewer sick days, have fewer injuries, place a higher value on ethical behavior and are better verbal communicators.

Other studies have found that college-educated officers get more easily bored on the job and are subject to hostility from senior officers with no college. One study found that experienced officers were identified by their peers as the most skilled in dealing with conflict. Another found that some police departments gave equal weight to military experience as to a college education in hiring.

Studies on the use of force are similarly fragmented. Some have found that officers with a college degree are less likely to fire a gun, while others have found they are more likely to do so. Still others have reported no difference between college-educated officers and those with no college when it comes to using force.

Terrill and Jason Rydberg, a graduate student at Michigan State, examined about 3,400 police encounters with crime suspects drawn from a database of 12,000 officer-citizen encounters in Indianapolis, Ind., and St. Petersburg, Fla., in 1996 and 1997. For that study, which Terrill helped run, independent observers rode along with police officers, took notes on their interactions with citizens and interviewed the officers about their backgrounds. It remains the most recent large-scale study on the state of policing in the United States, and because the education requirements in policing have not changed much since the late 1990s, it is still timely.

In 2007, Terrill used the same database to look at officer experience and the use of force in police encounters with suspects. That study, which appeared in Criminal Justice and Behavior, showed that force is used least frequently — 51 percent of the time — in encounters between suspects and the most experienced officers, those who had worked 11 years or more on the job.

Experience and education have similar effects on policing, Terrill said, but experience takes longer to accumulate, and many mistakes may be made along the way.

“Irrespective of experience, college is going to give you bang for the buck right out of the gate,” he said. “By having an education, you’re actually speeding up the process of experience and you’re getting the effect of better policing in the form of less force.”

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Melinda Burns
Former Miller-McCune staff writer Melinda Burns was previously a senior writer for the Santa Barbara News-Press, covering immigration, urban planning, science, and the environment.

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