SALEM, Ore. – Amid a renewed nationwide focus on police qualifications following the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols, an Oregon lawmaker has introduced a bill that would require law enforcement officers to complete at least two years of higher education.
Police departments have wrestled for years with officer education requirements. Many say that raising them would worsen current staffing shortages and make it harder to recruit candidates from diverse backgrounds. But reform advocates say that continuing education past high school can equip officers with critical life skills that could help improve their interactions with the public.
“You’re learning, you’re reading about other communities, you’re reading about other people, you’re getting a sense of respect for people who you do not know, communities that you do not know,” said Democratic Oregon state Sen. Lew Frederick, the bill’s chief sponsor.
The bill, which was introduced last month, would push back against the recent trend of lowering police hiring standards by requiring two years of higher education for departments with less than 50 officers and a bachelor’s degree for departments with more than 50. It would apply to police, corrections, parole, probation and reserve officers.
The bill would set police education requirements in state law. Generally, these requirements are determined by municipalities or individual departments.
Nationwide, about 80% of police agencies only require a high school or GED diploma, according to a 2016 survey of more than 2,700 agencies by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. The number requiring a two-year degree hovers around 10%, while just over 1% require a bachelor’s degree.
Many police agencies that do have college credit requirements waive them if a candidate has military or law enforcement experience. These include departments in major cities, such as New York City, Dallas and Washington, D.C. Tulsa's police department is among the few requiring a bachelor's degree.
Many agencies, however, have dropped degree requirements in recent years because of recruitment difficulties stemming partly from a crisis of public trust, according to the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based think tank. Its executive director, Chuck Wexler, said that while many departments may want more educated entry-level officers, they can't raise the bar when a shrunken hiring pool means they already have less applicants to choose from.
“The combination of the pandemic, the George Floyd murder and the narrative of policing has made policing less attractive than ever,” he said. “The recent killing of Tyre Nichols only adds to the concerns that people are having about the policing profession.”
While a college education doesn’t automatically make a good officer, it can help people develop critical thinking and communication skills, Wexler said.
“I think merely requiring a high school degree is hugely inadequate for the complexities associated with a very complicated and important position in America," he said.
The Portland Police Bureau in Oregon is among the agencies that have struggled to recruit. The city was gripped by months-long protests in 2020 following the racial justice demonstrations sparked by Floyd's death, and has seen record numbers of homicides the past two years.
The police bureau only requires a high school or GED diploma. But that minimum requirement, it says, doesn’t necessarily result in hiring candidates with less education. While testifying against the Oregon bill on Tuesday, PPB Capt. Greg Pashley said that about 70% of the bureau's sworn employees have a bachelor's degree or higher, and that 46% of applicants have a two-year degree or higher.
Echoing other agencies around the country, he also said that requiring college courses excludes lower-income candidates who aren’t able to afford them and makes police forces less diverse.
“Arbitrary requirements such as a four-year degree would have a chilling effect on potential applicants, including applicants of color, who may not have had educational opportunities growing up but who, as adults, have established themselves as dedicated servants in their community," Pashley said. “Undoubtedly, education is valuable. But it shouldn’t be a litmus test for public service."
Even if it’s not mandated, many police officers choose to pursue higher education in order to be eligible for higher salaries or promotions. About a third of law enforcement officers have at least a four-year degree, according to a 2017 survey conducted by the National Policing Institute and California State University, Fullerton.
There is research showing that officers with more education are more likely to resolve conflict without resorting to coercion, said William Terrill, criminology and criminal justice professor at Arizona State University.
“In terms of handling conflictual situations, those with an education seem to be able to problem solve without relying on force to the same extent,” he said.
The training that police receive once hired, however, can be just as important as education, Terrill said. But training only lasts a few months and often focuses on tactical and mechanical skills—“how to handcuff, how to tase”—rather than critical thinking exercises, he said.
“In many respects, I think the issue is much bigger than a four-year or two-year requirement,” he said. “If they have two years of education, and they get six months of academy, we’re still putting someone out there, with half a year of training, with a gun and the ability to take life and handcuffs with the ability to take liberty.”
Another hearing for the Oregon bill has yet to be scheduled.
Claire Rush is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Claire on Twitter.