Do college grads make better cops?
Does requiring a cop to have a college education improve the quality of law enforcement? Minnesota says yes.
Minnesota is one of only two states in the nation to require a two-year degree to become a licensed police officer. However, policymakers and others still debate whether college courses directly affect the quality of law enforcement.
Most of the country's law enforcement agencies require only a high school diploma to become an officer. As of 2003, 9 percent of police agencies required a two-year degree, and 1 percent required a four-year degree.
Minnesota's law enforcement application has some of the strictest requirements in the country. A minimum two-year degree is required from an approved Peace Officer Standards and Training program. After earning a two-year degree in any discipline, candidates must also earn a licensing certificate from an accredited school, according to Nate Grove, POST executive director.
Once that's finished, candidates must take the licensing exam. Once licensed, every active and inactive police officer — including part-time officers — must complete a minimum 48 hours of continuing education every three years in order to keep their license.
Active officers are also required to train every year on use of force, and every five years in emergency vehicle operations and pursuit driving.
In 1977, Minnesota legislators established the nation's first licensing system for police officers, according to the FBI. This created the Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training. The board authorizes licenses and determines minimum education requirements for all new officers.
Some education experts and organizations have argued for even stricter education requirements. They argue that community-focused policing requires particular skill sets, such as critical thinking and reasoning, an understanding of the causes of socioeconomic crime, and race relations.
Others are skeptical that higher education makes a difference in an officer's ability to perform.
James Densley, associate professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, co-authored a study that looked into law enforcement hiring practices and the role of higher education in policing.
Simply having a college degree might not be a good indicator of how well someone performs in the actual profession, Densley said. "Quality, not the quantity of the degree, matters most.
"There is a risk that the current system, with its shallow curriculum and emphasis on technical skills, is merely credentialing candidates, not educating them," he said. "What would the benefit of pursuing a two-year degree be, and would a four-year degree necessarily be any more beneficial for those to become an officer?"
Rich Watkins, a Riverland Community College instructor, said a hands-on approach in a two-year program is preferred. That would give students an opportunity to learn whether the profession is right for them.
"This is an evolving profession. We can't just stay the same as we are and expect to go on for another 20 years like this," Watkins said. "Law enforcement needs to strive to recognize the human factors involved. Training needs to be kept up to date, and should be put on the forefront of every agency. Not every agency does."
Others say the four-year degree can offer officers a place to mature and be exposed to diversity in thought and culture.
"We need to challenge ourselves," said Mark Norman, Winona State University professor of criminal justice. "You'll run into people who don't like you because you're officers, and rightfully so. As law enforcement, we played into the role of discourse within our communities. That's why community policing is so important … to repair some of the harm that exists in our societies. How to relate to them on those things are important to get instructed in our classrooms."
No simple solution
Evidence from Densley's research suggests that higher education "carries no influence over the probability of an arrest or search during a police-civilian encounter." However, a college education does significantly decrease the likelihood of force.
"The question is why," he said. "Is it that college education genuinely improves skills, habits, and social and personality attributes conducive to policing, or that a college degree is simply a reliable indicator of underlying prosocial attributes that were always there? If high-ability people are inherently better cops than low-ability people, then perhaps a college degree is merely a mechanism to signal such ability to employers?"
Perhaps the biggest obstacles faced by a potential police officer are time and money. Minnesota candidates have to invest in two to four years of training and education that can cost $15,000 to $100,000, with no guarantee of a job at the end of it all.
Metro-area law enforcement agencies are increasingly hiring only candidates with four-year degrees. The trend is led mostly by community demand, which led to a "geographical bias," according to Densley's research.
"Some large agencies get so many applicants, for example, that the four-year degree becomes a necessary screening tool. Rural agencies, on the other hand, pay less and attract fewer applicants. Therefore, they often go with two-year-degree candidates."
The costs associated with a professional peace officer education, Densley argues, "dissuade low-income or second-career opportunity. Not to mention the historical and cultural barriers to entry for women or black and minority ethnic candidates."
"Now you could say that about most professions, but the difference here is that candidates are studying for a degree in law enforcement. Period," he said. "A degree that is tailored to law enforcement in Minnesota. Not Wisconsin, or California. Just Minnesota. That is a pretty narrow workforce preparation compared, to say, a degree in psychology or economics."
Is college right?
The college environment might not necessarily be well positioned to deliver police training.
"There are things that colleges and universities can do," Densley said. "Promote partnership between researchers and law enforcement agencies, champion program evaluation and evidence-based practices, provide a safe space to explore empathy, implicit bias, procedural justice, deescalation. For example, I would much rather students learn about structural inequality in America from a sociology professor than a retired beat cop."
Norman believes that it's time for law enforcement to take a look at itself and changing times.
"My hope is that we continue to always look out into the world and see what's happening," he said. "Be able to make adjustments to better ourselves."
Dylan Arndt, 19, of Brownsdale has always wanted to be a cop.
Soon, he'll be graduating from Riverland with an associate's degree, the first big step in becoming a licensed officer in the state. Despite the complexities, the scrutiny, the dangers, and the amount of work left ahead of him, he feels that this job was meant for him.
"I think if I just do my job the right way, I'll be just fine," Arndt said. "It makes it easier when you're doing something you love, and it doesn't feel like work at all."