Being a Cop Could Soon Require a 4-Year College Degree in California

Illinois, New Jersey, and North Dakota already require their state officers to complete at least two years of college or some kind of equivalent before they enter the force.
December 10, 2020, 1:53pm
Beverly Hills police officers patrol in their car on November 1, 2020 in Beverly Hills.

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A California legislator has proposed a drastic plan to help create a more responsible, less deadly police force for his state: requiring all incoming local and state officers to have a bachelor’s degree or be at least 25-years-old. 

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Democratic Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer introduced Assembly Bill-89 to the state Legislature Monday, according to the Sacramento Bee, in hopes that the new requirements would stave off incidents of violent police encounters and other forms of police misconduct.

“This data-driven bill relies on years of study and new understandings of brain development to ensure that only those officers capable of high-level decision-making and judgment in tense situations are entrusted with working in our communities and correctional facilities,” Jones-Sawyer said in a statement Monday.

The bill cites at least six sources as the basis for its proposal, including a 2007 study that found officers with bachelor’s degrees were less likely to use physical force than their high school-educated colleagues. So far this year, police have killed 134 people in California, according to the Washington Post, which surpasses last year’s total count of 135 fatal police shootings.

Worldwide, requiring a degree is nothing new to policing. In England and Wales, officers have been required to have a four-year degree as of this year. Denmark, Norway, Finland and Sweden all require their officers to have some level of college education in addition to their training. 

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Even in the U.S., while far from a national standard, Illinois, New Jersey, and North Dakota, all require their state officers to complete at least two years of college or some kind of equivalent before they enter the force. While no statistics show the direct impact of requirements, as of 2019 all three states were in the bottom 11 of those with the lowest number of police killings, according to MappingPoliceViolence.org.

Right now, most states require new recruits to be somewhere between the ages of 18 and 21, so California would also have the oldest age requirement for police officers of Jones-Sawyer’s proposal becomes law, according to The Hill. In California for example, police officers must be at least 18 and California Highway Patrol Officers need to be at least 20.

"The evidence is clear—the prefrontal cortex of the brain is not fully developed until age 25,” Esteban Nunez, director of the Los Angeles-based nonprofit the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, said in a joint statement with the assemblyman on Monday. “It is with similar logic that youth must be treated as youth by our criminal justice system."

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In 2017, Dr. Christina Gardiner, a professor of criminal justice at the University of California, Fullerton, conducted the largest non-governmental study looking at how higher education impacts policing in the U.S. Her research, which surveyed 958 law enforcement agencies in all 50 states, concluded that college-educated officers often excel in critical areas of policing, particularly in report-writing, although other results varied widely by state.

“This is important because if college-educated officers are truly better report writers that could translate to better investigations, higher court case filings, fewer evidentiary constitutional challenges, fewer false confessions or wrongful convictions, or more successful prosecutions,” Gardiner told VICE News. 

Her research also found that college-educated officers are more willing to embrace department-wide changes, particularly new policing methods and technology.

“These are important considerations given today’s emphasis on intelligence-led and evidence-based policing strategies,” she said. “Despite the cost of higher salaries, research suggests that college-educated officers may save departments money in other ways, such as fewer civil lawsuits and federal investigations.”

The college-based requirements wouldn’t stray too far from an ongoing trend, according to Gardiner’s study, which found that while only one percent of U.S. police departments require a college degree, more police officers had college credits than ever before. The study found that an average of 30.2 percent of police officers have a four-year college education, compared to just 8.9 percent in 1974.

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More stringent requirements for America’s police forces is a shift that researchers and some policing groups have proposed for years now. Both the California Police Chiefs Association and the Peace Officers Research Association of California have supported measures to raise the standards for becoming a police officer, according to the Sacramento Bee. 

Not everyone in law enforcement is entirely on board though. Erik Maness, a member of the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department and President of the California Peace Officers’ Association told VICE News he does have some concerns over how this will impact young people who want to join the force.

“We have not taken any official position on the bill, but worry that this approach would derail recruitment efforts of military veterans under the age of 25, and of those from disadvantaged and underrepresented communities who may not have every opportunity to get a Bachelor’s degree prior to seeking a career in law enforcement,” Maness said. “Increased targeted education through the academy setting would be more of a meaningful approach.

A spokesman for Jones-Sawyer told VICE News that he expects these new standards to boost salaries among the state’s law enforcement officers and improve the reputation of police in the state. He also wants to incorporate some form of loan forgiveness or credit for officers who opt to go to college.

“We view this in a positive light when it comes to recruitment. An enhanced force with these standards attributed to them would attract graduates who are seeking criminal justice pathways,” he said. “Others, after having a few different jobs between the ages of 18 and 25, could migrate into this area and dedicate themselves to public safety.”