Education, Law, Politics, Top Stories

Degree Requirements for Police Officers Will Not Make Us Safer

On December 7th, 2020, California State assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles), introduced a bill that sought to codify a condition for police hires in the state that has already become de rigueur in so many other fields—to require that all new officers have a university degree. Jones-Sawyer is not unique amongst middle class persons in recommending such prerequisites, nor is he even the first politician to propose such a requirement for police officers explicitly; several such bills have been introduced throughout the country during the last few years and some jurisdictions already require that new police officers be university-educated. Indeed, the argument that police officers should be mandated to be university-educated extends to the 1960s, after successive racial riots in American municipalities were blamed in part on police-community tensions.1 Despite the fact that university degrees are not yet explicitly mandatory, slightly more than half of all American police officers hold an associate’s degree and nearly a third hold a bachelor’s degree.2

Yet while many individual police officers have taken it upon themselves to earn degrees, the notion that university education should be a requirement for employment consideration should give pause to both scholars and citizens alike. Relegating police training to outside universities smacks of duty shirking; it should be the responsibility (and purview) of police departments to train law enforcement professionals effectively. Furthermore, the ever-expanding realm of credentialism further shrinks the available pool of quality jobs for working-class Americans, who, despite the increasing technological complexity of the economy, remain the largest economic and cultural bloc of the general population.3

A close inspection of the historical and increasingly severe push towards “credentialism” reveals that it should not only be questioned cautiously, but rejected outright. Bourgeois norms of cultural superiority cannot—must not—be used to support this new 21st century guildship of university education to shut out working class Americans from stable, well-paying positions. In an age of increasing political and cultural polarization—“back-the-blue” vs “defund-the-police”—the task of delineating exactly who can become a police officer is inherently fraught. Given the declining employment prospects for working class Americans, coupled with increasing political tension (and consequent decreasing social cohesion), it seems apposite to argue that the position of police officer should be open to a wide and diverse pool of prospective applicants and that preconditions to employment should be minimal. The wider adoption of apprenticeship models and on-the-job training will ensure that police departments will continue to be able to attract and retain applicants for this essential position.

At first glance, the idea that requiring less education for enforcers of state law than many private sector jobs require might seem specious. After all, considering the furor over the last few years’ well-publicized police shootings, it might seem odd to reduce prerequisite qualifications for a position that commands a “license to kill.” It is not necessarily that further education precludes an individual from becoming an effective police officer, but rather the stipulation in-and-of-itself that can be viewed as injurious to the process of attracting applicants. Furthermore, there are arguments against assuming the rote and staid path of the perfunctory American undergraduate degree. Outside of careers in academia, university degrees may no longer be the most optimum training route for employment—indeed they may never have been in the first place. Considering that university tuition costs are rising faster than inflation rates at a time of high unemployment, it seems reasonable to review the arguments against enjoining university degrees for blue-collar occupations.

The first critic of the efficacy of degree-seeking was one of America’s earliest philosophers, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Indeed, he would have been proud to define himself as an “Americanist,” even though the United States was scarcely half-a-century old by the time he started publishing. Eager to cultivate a philosophical tradition wholly separate from European traditions, Emerson understood that past revered wisdom needed to be continually challenged.4 In his quest to establish the nascent American philosophical tradition’s bona fides, he stressed the importance of self-reliance, and emphasized the cathartic power of shedding the archaic dogmas of European progenitors in order to develop new more practical and relevant modes of thinking.5 While giving a lecture at Harvard University, Emerson noted in a now famous speech entitled “The American Scholar” that while wide reading of foundational texts during one’s university years was important for the foundation of an intellectual life, too much emphasis on the memorization of texts created impediments to innovation:

Meek young men grow up in libraries; believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote these books. Hence, instead of “man thinking,” we have the bookworm… who value books… not as related to nature and the human constitution, but as making of a Third Estate with the world and the soul. Hence, the restorers of readings, the emendators, the bibliomaniacs of all degrees.6

It is both comical and unnerving that Emerson felt compelled to warn against rote memorization and the specialization and compartmentalization of knowledge as early as 1837. His view was that this kind of mundane learning approach encouraged young Americans to evade developing their own national philosophy, and thus was more counter-productive than beneficial for their intellectual development.7 It is probably true that mid-19th century Ivy League degrees left students ill-prepared for the professions they entered, and it is certainly true that police officers and similar municipal positions did not require such degrees to conduct their work adequately.

More than a century later, Allan Bloom in his seminal work The Closing of the American Mind argued that American university education was evolving into precisely what Emerson feared—a mere credentialing process for the professions. Bloom argued that by the 1980s, the American university experience neither inculcated students in the values of the Western canon nor encouraged critical thinking. This left graduates not only unemployable, but uninformed.8 Both of these thinkers understood that molding the university degree into an imperative for employment not only left students unprepared for analytical innovation, but also transmuted academics into subordinate employees of their own students. Previously, students felt that they could be guided in their learning by professors; increasingly students believe that professors are nefarious impediments to their future employment prospects.

Whatever the case, both the general public and professional academics appear less informed than ever, and both parties seem more concerned with how they look on paper. One poor grade, and a student’s degree is instantly less attractive to the best employers.9 One poor student review, and an academic’s already precarious path to a stable position is derailed. Still, despite these mushrooming conflicts of interest on American university campuses since the 1960s, neither academia nor private sector industries seem motivated to provide different methods of learning and/or employment training. Intellectual disciplines continue to splinter into further exacting divisions, engendering new and more obscure academic departments.

While perhaps this increased specialization of academic inquiry could result in increased opportunities for professional academics (this would be a silver lining, admittedly), there has been little effort to cultivate new and alternative modes of vocational training.10 The expansion of credential requirements for employment, evident even in Emerson’s time, has become an even more pressing concern for contemporary American workers, and needs to be addressed rapidly. This is especially true of police officers; nation-wide 86 percent of departments report a deficit of officers. This situation will presumably worsen as a glut of officers hired in the 1990s become eligible for retirement. Considering the physical damage caused by the Black Lives Matter riots, the shortage of police officers should be a source of concern. While there is little policymakers can do to promote cultural goodwill towards the police, they can (and should) resist the urge to impose arbitrary requirements on who can apply for police positions.

Put simply, higher education prerequisites for traditionally blue-collar roles, particularly the police, are placing unnecessary hurdles and financial strain on aspirational working class Americans. New methods of training police officers and other blue-collar positions need to be explored. Rather than mandate formal degrees for admittance to entry-level positions (reminiscent of medieval guild action), organizations should embrace formal apprenticeships and more informal on-the-job training. This is particularly salient advice for police departments, which provide one of the few bastions of steady employment for working-class men. Thankfully, for the time being, the majority of American police departments do not require introductory police officers to hold any degrees past high school. However, state representatives like Jones-Sawyer are angling to increase barriers to becoming a police officer, presumably with the intention of attracting “higher quality” applicants (or perhaps to provide jobs for the unemployed middle class).

But if there is not a corresponding increase in potential pay (Jones-Sawyer did not proffer any legislation to increase police pay), the result will almost surely be a gross decrease in applicants for police positions, at a time when police departments are already compromised by so many officer vacancies. The effects of such a position can already be discerned; for although most police departments still permit applicants without degrees, a growing percentage require bachelor’s degrees and even master’s degrees for advancement within the ranks.11 The prospect of juggling police work, night school, financial concerns (most survey respondents feel that police are severely underpaid), and a family life surely repels many qualified applicants for police positions who are otherwise unemployed or underemployed.

The status quo, thus, creates a dilemma—how do police departments remain attractive to working class applicants while simultaneously cultivating competent officers capable of handling the demands of 21st century policing? The answer might lie with the Duales Ausbildungssystem (dual education system) which emerged in West Germany in 1969—it combines classroom learning with on-the-job training. Student workers, who through the program can begin working as early as 15, earn salaries as they are trained in current industrial/commercial practices, combining their apprentice work with pertinent classroom learning. This approach is popular in Germany, and workers who opt for this training report broadly that their skills and efforts are appreciated by management.12 It might resolve the problem of how to attract and retain working class applicants and ensure that they are prepared for an increasingly complicated police role.13

While the Duales Ausbildungssystem is usually associated with industrial occupations in Germany, there is little reason why it cannot be adapted to train apprentices in police work and other civil occupations. Indeed, previously in the United Kingdom, prospective nurses were trained in hospitals, rather than universities in a scheme similar to Duales Ausbildungssystem. This came to an end in 1990 with the adoption of Project 2000, a government prompted transition from a hospital-based training system to a university-based training system. While this transition brought the United Kingdom into line with the rest of Europe, domestically the implementation of university-based learning for nurses over hospital-based learning has both its supporters and detractors.14 Initially the burden of the change was eased by the fact that the British government awarded paid bursaries to nursing students, just as they currently award to medical students.

All good things come to an end, however, and predictably the government ended nursing bursaries in 2017 under the dubious guise of creating incentives to train more (needed) nurses. Now British nursing students must fork out £9,250 a year for three years in order to work in a hospital. Under the apprentice system, nurses made three years’ contributions to their pensions after completing their training. Now, prospective nurses must shoulder (at least) £27,750 in debt before commencing their profession. The current state of nursing in the United Kingdom, which is facing a terrible shortage of health professionals during the global coronavirus pandemic, should serve as a caution for all those who would further mandate university degree requirements. With the Duales Ausbildungssystem as a model, both the positions of nurse and police officer could remain accessible to working class Americans while bolstering and maintaining contemporary standards of performance.

Police trainees under such a system could shadow established officers and learn the nuances of defusing tense situations before violence erupts. This kind of experience, any police officer will confirm, would be invaluable and cannot be simulated fully in a classroom setting. Additionally, such trainees who found they lacked the requisite fortitude for police work would be washed out before undergoing an expensive and time-consuming degree in criminology. This would not only save time and money for aspirant officers, but potentially spare police departments from future scandals such as unwarranted shootings. Engagement rules would have to be set for such trainees to shield departments from police malpractice lawsuits, but surely the British hospital-based nurse training scheme provides a blueprint for what amount of authority can be delegated. Although some might argue that the ethical quandaries of placing unestablished officers directly in the field outweigh the potential benefits, it is crucial that alternative approaches to police education be investigated if officer positions are to remain attractive to working class Americans.

On September 12th, 2020, nearly four months prior to the introduction of Jones-Sawyer’s bill, two Los Angeles County Sherriff deputies were shot at point blank range whilst sitting in their police cruiser. The attacker (a suspect has since been apprehended) shot them for a still undetermined reason, though considering the fervor of the Black Lives Matter riots in Los Angeles at the time, it has been speculated that animus towards the police provided the impetus for the attack. After the deputies were rushed to the hospital, protestors surrounded the hospital to protest the officers. One protester was heard to yell “I hope they die!” To his credit, Jones-Sawyer condemned the shooting, and called the incident a “cowardly act.” His comments regarding his bill, however, belie his earnestness. He noted that police “jobs are complex, they’re difficult, and we should not just hand them over to people who haven’t fully developed themselves.” One wonders if Jones-Sawyer considered the officers wounded by an errant vigilante were “fully developed.” Citing studies that suggest people develop emotionally as they age, Jones-Sawyer argued, “This could be the beginning of changing the entire way that policing is done on the front end, then we can let the bad cops retire on the back end.”

However, Jones-Sawyer’s belief that older, extant, non-university educated police officers are more likely to be bad cops should be rejected. His proposal to establish more prerequisites for police employment will not result in better cops nor will it increase public safety. Rather, it will limit the opportunities for working class men and women to enter a stable, well-paid, and noble profession. The effect would be to place a kind of middle class guild requirement for consideration for the police.

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed America’s current credentialist employment culture an unsustainable and ultimately untenable approach to training workers for all variety of occupations. The dual education apprenticeship model pioneered by Germany (and formerly the United Kingdom) provides examples of how police training can develop more sustainably in America. Americans of all education levels should support expanding access to police positions to provide economic stability for working class Americans and to promote social and racial harmony.


Nicholas Sharrer is an independent researcher living in Washington, DC. He tends to write on social, political, and cultural issues; but only when he feels like it.

Photo by Felix Koutchinski on Unsplash


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3 Pew Research Center, June, 2020, “In Changing U.S. Electorate, Race and Education Remain Stark Dividing Lines”, pp. 14-16.
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