Stephon Clark, Alton Sterling, Eric Garner, Philandro Castile, Walter Scott and Tamir Rice — these are just some of the names of black men (and in the case of Rice, black youth) who made national headlines after they were killed by police in instances of alleged excessive use of force.
In response to such deaths and the resulting protests that filled streets, college campuses and government grounds, in 2015, President Obama created the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing to better address police procedures and “promote effective crime reduction while building public trust.” Encouraging higher education among officers was one recommendation.
But does a college degree make a difference in how police interact with their communities?
That is the question researchers from Georgia State University and the University of Missouri-St. Louis attempted to answer.
For their study, criminal justice professors Richard Wright and Richard Rosenfeld, along with criminal justice Ph.D. candidate, Thaddeus L. Johnson, examined traffic stops made by St. Louis, Missouri officers. They chose traffic stops because it is the most common interaction citizens have with local law enforcement. The average person is not committing serious crimes, but he or she might possess a lead foot that triggers an officer's flashing red and blue lights. Of 63,000 traffic stops made by 842 St. Louis officers in 2013, just under 30 percent were by officers with a college degree.
As a whole, this group was more zealous in upholding the law when compared to their lesser educated brothers and sisters in blue. According to the data, they were 50 percent more likely to pull someone over for a moving violation other than speeding. They were also three times as likely to conduct consent searches and twice as likely to make arrests on discretionary grounds.
So why is that? The researchers hypothesized that “...having a college degree is a proxy for ambition.”
Because police departments reward officers for tickets and arrests, it is possible these officers saw strictly enforcing the law as a rung to climbing the career ladder. Indeed, the researchers point to a 2012 journal article in Criminal Justice and Behavior that found that officers holding a bachelor’s degree were nearly twice as likely to seek promotion in comparison to officers holding only a high school diploma.
Thus, does a college degree actually worsen relations between police and citizens? It doesn't need to, suggest the researchers.
To improve policing, the researchers recommend law enforcement departments capitalize on ambition by using it “as a vehicle for implementing change.”
Police departments can take a more comprehensive approach to evaluating officers. In addition to rewarding citations and arrests, departments could reward officers for community engagement, such as involvement with community meetings and service projects. Wright, Rosenfeld and Johnson believe ambitious, college-educated officers are the ideal candidates to achieve within these broader, more positive and people-focused parameters.
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