Before I became a cop I went to college. I received dual bachelor degrees: one in recreation and the other in psychology. Back in 1979, when I was being interviewed as part of the hiring process to be a police officer, one of the interviewers asked me if my college degree “might get in the way” of being a good police officer. I asked him what he meant, and he said something to the effect of, “Are you going to try and psychoanalyze or overthink a situation when you should be acting?”
I don’t remember how I answered, but it obviously satisfied him and the others on the panel. I got the job. I remember the question because it caught me off guard. The thought process behind it didn’t make any sense to me at the time. How could a college education possibly impede good police work?
In 1980, the year I became a cop, it was still fairly unusual to have college grads apply for police jobs. There were some, but I would guess there were far more military veterans than people with four-year degrees.
Apparently—at least to the panel I stood in front of—the feeling was that college-educated people were overly intellectual and not instinctive enough for law enforcement.
Oh, how the times have changed.
Many, many agencies are now placing a greater value on education than most anything else. In fact, thousands of departments now have some level of college as a requirement to apply. Most want a two-year degree while a few demand full bachelor’s degrees. It’s the industry standard now that to promote into the management ranks, the applicant needs some level of college education.
I’ve been asked the following question more times than I can count: “Do you think I should go back to school and get my degree?” My answer is always the same: “Of course!”
I’m a huge proponent of education. I don’t see the downside. There’s almost no reason to avoid the endeavor. Many schools have expanded their programs, hours and curriculums to make it easier for working cops. In addition, there are incredibly legitimate online programs now that not only challenge students intellectually, but upon completion reward them with highly respected degrees.
However, it’s important to recognize that life experience and common sense are just as important, in reality, as a diploma.
I probably had a dozen different jobs by the time I graduated college. I worked as a paper boy, caddy, grocery clerk, bartender, waiter, construction worker, laborer, insulator—the list goes on. What did I learn from these sometimes-menial jobs?
I learned what a lousy boss was and how to deal with him or her. I learned that I needed to go to bed on time, to remember my lunch, how to pace myself, how to buy the right clothes, how to calm the irrational, how to calm myself, how to work my way through problems and to think outside the box.
Real life taught me coping skills. College was more conceptual, but it expanded my mind.
It taught me how to find things, how to listen to other views and that it was necessary to research. It taught me how to formalize thought and organize the chronology of events on paper.
As is prominently inscribed on the statue of Emil Faber, the founder of fabled Faber College, “Knowledge is good.” But, I caution to police administrators: Knowledge comes in many forms. Overly valuing degrees, while ignoring the need for common sense and street smarts, is dangerous for our profession. We need to learn how to balance the two. Ignoring one at the expense of the other will inevitably lead to problems in the future.