A bill introduced in the Oregon Senate would require law enforcement officers in the state to have completed a minimum of two years of higher education. The move is part of an effort to increase hiring qualifications following the death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis.
On the one hand, critics argue that such a move would exacerbate staffing shortages and reduce diversity in the workforce. On the other, supporters say higher education can provide officers with critical life skills to improve their interactions with the public.
The chief sponsor of the bill, Senator Lew Frederick, believes education will lead to a greater understanding of the communities officers serve.
“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,” Frederick argued.
The bill, which was introduced last month, comes amid a trend of police departments lowering hiring standards to optimize recruiting.
The measure would require at least two years of higher education for departments with less than 50 officers and a bachelor’s degree for departments with over 50. It would apply to different types of officers, including police, corrections, parole, probation and reserve officers. The bill also makes police education requirements part of state law. Currently, such requirements are generally determined by individual departments or municipalities.
Across the nation, just 10% of police departments require at least two years of higher education, and only 1% require officers to obtain a bachelor’s degree according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. The vast majority of departments just require officers to have a high school diploma or a GED. Many agencies also waive college requirements if a candidate has a background in military or law enforcement.
However, according to Police Executive Research Forum Executive Director Chuck Wexler, departments have had to drop degree requirements to compensate for difficulties in recruiting. “The combination of the pandemic, the George Floyd murder and the narrative of policing has made policing less attractive than ever,” he told the Associated Press. “The recent killing of Tyre Nichols only adds to the concerns that people are having about the policing profession.”
Ideally, Wexler said, departments would want to have more educated officers on the force. “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 added.
The Portland Police Bureau (PPB), which has been hit hard with staffing problems following the death of George Floyd in 2020, only requires applicants to have a high school diploma or equivalent qualification.
PPB Captain Greg Pashley testified against the bill at a recent hearing, saying that roughly 70% of the bureau’s sworn employees have a bachelor’s degree or higher, while at least 46% of applicants have a two-year degree or higher.
However, Pashley argued that education requirements exclude low-income applicants who cannot afford degrees, and thus lower the diversity of police departments while also reducing overall recruitment.
“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.”
There is also evidence that the law enforcement industry is more educated than one would be led to believe by lawmakers. According to a 2017 survey from the National Policing Institute and California State University, Fullerton, around a third of law enforcement officers have at least a four-year degree. Indeed, many officers pursue higher education in order to obtain promotions or higher salaries.
William Terrill, a criminology and criminal justice professor at Arizona State University, said that those with a higher-education background are more likely to de-escalate situations.
“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.
While training is also important, Terrill said it doesn’t focus as much on the critical thinking component of law enforcement work.
“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.”