staff, staff, March 6, 2015

Law enforcement strategies such as use of force and militarization of the police have drawn negative attention in the news over the last few years, and especially in recent months due to well-publicized cases like that of Eric Garner.

MSU_TerrillWilliam Terrill, a criminal justice professor at Michigan State and former military police officer, understands the challenges that people who make a living keeping the peace have to deal with. And he believes at least some of those issues could be resolved by placing a greater emphasis on higher education.

He?s spent much of his career examining the correlation between the level of education of police officers and their effectiveness in law enforcement. In a co-authored 2011 study of eight police departments, Terrill and his colleagues found that only 45 percent of the officers had degrees from a four-year university.

Based on their other findings, Terrill believes better-educated police officers tend to better understand the nuances in people?s appearances and communication instead of instantly judging them. That, in turn, reduces the incidents they?re involved in that have any kind of violent outcome.

?Officers with higher education - in this case a four-year degree - used lower levels of force,? Terrill explained. ?When educated police officers use less force, the public tends to have greater trust in the police.?

At the time of the study, though, none of the departments Terrill and his team examined required a college degree as a condition of employment.

?Presently, only 1 percent of all police agencies in the U.S. require a four-year degree,? he added.

One may wonder, then, why police departments don?t require their officers to have college degrees, especially since it could help them achieve higher pay grades and promotions. There are a couple of reasons for that: One has to do with the perception that it?s tougher to sell college graduates on local law enforcement as a career.

?Police administrators sometimes feel that by requiring a degree, the job-applicant pool is substantially reduced,? Terrill said. ?[That] can make it difficult to employ a police force that is representative of the community.?

Also, there?s the age-old ?book-smart? vs. ?street-smart? debate within the law enforcement community, with many arguing that cops need to have more of the latter in order to effectively fight crime. But Terrell argued against a one-or-the-other mindset. It?s really down to each person?s interests, talents and experiences.

?It is very individualistic,? he said. ?I have seen some ?book-smart? students really struggle in the policing occupation, while others have thrived.  At the end of the day, becoming ?street-smart? requires time on the street via experience.?

[btn-post-package]Nonetheless, the changing nature of crime may necessitate some level of college education for current and aspiring officers. Street crime is a constant presence, but now it?s spilling on to the Internet, particularly social networks. Offenses like robberies, identity theft and credit-card fraud can now be committed with the click of a mouse, and virtual methods often provide criminals with more lucrative opportunities and lower odds of being caught.

To combat problems such as online activities of street gangs and complex financial schemes, Terrill believes police forces will need to have not only higher overall levels of formal education but also expertise in a broader variety of disciplines.

?The more skills officers gain, the greater the opportunity for them to combat varying types of criminal offending,? he explained. ?It takes more than street-smart cops to combat crime given the evolving nature of technology.?

By Lyletta Robinson