If many law enforcement jobs don’t require a degree, why spend the money and time on higher education?
According to Steven Brancazio, faculty chair for Capella University’s Criminal Justice Undergraduate Studies, and Micheal Kemp, faculty chair in the School of Public Service Leadership, there are many reasons to obtain a degree, and those reasons are getting increasingly more important.
A Changing Field
“Policing is changing,” says Brancazio. “It used to be authoritative, reactive, a very strict hierarchy and chain of command.” Meaning lower-level employees were expected to follow orders. But that’s shifting.
“Today, officers are given more authority and are more involved in the community,” says Brancazio. “They need better critical thinking skills. More decision-making responsibility at lower levels means a law enforcement officer needs to know what’s involved.”
“Police work is under intense scrutiny right now,” says Kemp. “Any misstep is going to be very public. It’s important for officers to have a whole toolkit of skills to make the best on-the-job decisions possible. Higher education in criminal justice can get you those skills.”
Brancazio agrees. “Officers on the street are the face of the organization to the public,” he says. “And the public forms an opinion based on what these front line officers are doing. I can’t emphasize enough how critical it is for front-line officers to be prepared.”
“College teaches you ethics, conflict resolution, and critical thinking—all those soft skills that can help you be proactive rather than reactive,” says Brancazio. “It can mean the difference between a situation that escalates badly and one that is resolved peaceably. That’s what a degree brings. When you come in with more knowledge up front, you’re less likely to make mistakes.”
“The degree helps you gain that theoretical knowledge, and it helps you learn how to translate theories into practical solutions,” Kemp adds. “That mastery of knowledge gives you more tools in decision-making.”
Successful Public Interaction
While TV crime shows depict police officers in constant pursuit of criminals, the reality is much different, which is why a broader educational base is valuable. “Over 90% of what officers do has nothing to do with criminal apprehension,” says Brancazio.
Crime prevention and community relations are a major part of a police officer’s portfolio. They’re negotiating disputes, making presentations at schools, communicating with community groups—all of which require a different set of skills than you might typically associate with police work.
Critical thinking is necessary for officers to analyze a situation on the fly. “There was recently a case of a police officer who pulled someone over whose kids were in the car without a car seat,” says Kemp. “That’s a violation. But the officer, in talking with the driver, learned that the driver couldn’t afford car seats. So he helped the driver get car seats to keep the kids safe. What good would ticketing the driver do, if he can’t afford the car seat? Now you have an outcome where the kids are safe and the driver feels good about the situation. It’s a win-win. But you have to know how to assess that kind of situation and make a quick decision about it.”
Better Career Options
Both Kemp and Brancazio note that although many entry-level criminal justice positions don’t require a degree, a candidate who has one has an edge over the competition, and is likely to earn more as well—up to 22% more*. “Beyond a doubt, agencies are looking for degrees,” says Brancazio.
If someone aspires to move up in the criminal justice field, a degree becomes even more critical. “If you’re moving into administrative roles, you should even consider an advanced degree,” says Kemp. “If you’re going into management, you need additional skills,” Brancazio adds. “Running a department is basically running a business. You’ve got budgets, HR issues, the whole works.” Knowing what works out on the street is not enough to know how to run an entire department.
“The bottom line is that a criminal justice degree can improve your prospects in law enforcement,” Brancazio shares. “Education is probably the most powerful weapon any officer carries.”
Learn more about Capella’s online criminal justice degree programs.