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The Surprising Role of College Degrees in Policing Practices
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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.

1 Comment
Valued Contributor

This is an interesting study and it suggests some very interesting conclusions. I don't know that one isolated area of law enforcement is a good predictor - but it certainly contributes. It's interesting to suggest that police officers with a formal education, beyond high school, are motivated by personal or professional gain (reward, recognition, etc). That seems to suggest that officers without formal education, beyond high school, are not. 

 

Another area that was not shared in this review was the degree type. A bachelors degree in social work, conflict resolution, divinity, or philosophy offers a different focus than a degree in accounting, engineering, criminal justice, computer science or math. The one common denominator, I hope crosses degrees, is the presence of critical thinking and analysis.

 

Other factors that should be considered include:
Prior Police or Military Service
Demographics: Age, Race and Gender or the Officer and the driver

Longevity of service with the department

Academy graduation standards

Evidence or Absence of Community Engagement 

Fitness and wellness and a whole lot more.

 

I think this study makes a good start, but it seems that the authors selected one aspect of the job - traffic stops, and one factor of police officers - formal education, and drawing conclusions without considering other factors that are every bit as important. 

 

Having said all that, it is well known that in most jurisdictions traffic stops, citations, and escalation of police contact are at the discretion of the officer, and some police officers see citations and escalation of police contact as a means of changing the behavior of the public. To be sure, how many people look down at their speed when they are passing a police car on the side of the road? Change of behavior.

 

The full study may have more information than was presented here, so I'm not condemning the report...just withholding judgement.
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Eugene Matthews