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Education for Police Officers

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The demand for police officers at all levels is expected to increase considerably over the next few decades. The right training and education prepare candidates to pursue careers in law enforcement such as:

  • Police officer
  • Sheriff’s deputy
  • State trooper
  • Juvenile officer
  • Detective or investigator
  • Game warden or park patrol
  • Narcotics officer
  • Crime scene investigator

Most law enforcement agencies around the country require a high school a high school diploma for entry-level police and patrol careers, but if you want to be competitive, a college degree might give you an edge.

“If there are two equal candidates, and one of them has a college degree, that’s the one they’re going to hire,” says Stephen Webb, instructor of criminal justice and a retired Virginia state trooper. Any kind of college degree will give you the advantage of being exposed to perspectives and experiences that you wouldn’t otherwise encounter, Webb says.

Many people who know they want a career as a police officer will enroll in a law enforcement degree or criminal justice program at a college or university. Both associate and bachelor’s degree programs are available.

Compared to the past, it’s becoming more common for local and state police forces to require an associate degree as the minimum education for candidates, Webb explains. To advance to the highest ranks, a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree may be required.

Regardless of whether you hold a degree, all officers undergo training to learn about laws, legal procedures, and policing strategies. These law enforcement training programs also require physical conditioning and firearm training. Additional training may be required to move up in the ranks or to work in specialized units.

In this Article

What Associate Degrees Should Aspiring Law Enforcement Officials Consider?

Associate degrees are two-year programs available at most community colleges, regional and technical colleges, online universities, and some traditional four-year universities. You have to earn a total of about 60 credit hours, which includes courses in your chosen major as well as general education courses like English, math, and science.

Several popular associate degree programs could give you the education you need to get started in a law enforcement career.

Associate Degree in Criminal Justice

Associate degrees in criminal justice provides a general background in criminal law, police procedures, investigative techniques, sociology, and ethics.

After taking your core classes in criminal justice and general education, you may be able to choose electives in a concentration such as policing, law enforcement, first responder, homeland security, computer forensics, or corrections.

Not all programs will have the same areas of concentrations or electives, so before choosing a school, examine the curriculum carefully. If you’re not sure what career path you want, don’t worry; a general criminal justice degree is designed to give you the basic education needed to begin your career. If you decide to specialize, you can return to school later for a certificate or bachelor’s degree.

Jobs You Can Get

  • Police or Patrol Officer
  • Crime Scene Investigator
  • Private Investigator
  • Corrections Officer
  • Bailiff

Classes You’ll Take

  • Criminology
  • Law and Government
  • Policing
  • Criminal Psychology
  • Sociology
  • Report Writing
  • Criminal Investigation
  • Criminal Law

Associate Degree in Law Enforcement

The associate degree in law enforcement is more narrowly focused than a criminal justice degree and is specifically designed for those wanting to become police officers. Compared to a general associate in criminal justice, you may take more classes tailored to the needs of policing such as police organization and operations, community relations, evidence procedures, and court proceedings. Some colleges and universities offer a nearly identical degree called Police Science.

Jobs You Can Get

  • Police or Patrol Officer
  • Crime Scene Investigator
  • Juvenile Officer
  • Community-Based Police Officer
  • Corrections Officer
  • Bailiff

Classes You’ll Take

  • Criminal Investigation
  • Police Operations
  • Juvenile Delinquency
  • Community Relations
  • Ethics

Associate Degree in Homeland Security

A relatively new degree, the associate in homeland security focuses on strategies to preventing and responding to terrorist threats. This program is sometimes combined with emergency management.

Jobs You Can Get

  • Police Officer
  • Security Guard
  • Border Patrol Agent
  • Transportation Security Officer
  • Railroad Police

Classes You’ll Take

  • Terrorism Response
  • Disaster Planning
  • Intelligence Analysis
  • Political Science
  • International Relations

Associate Degree in Forensic Science

The forensic science degree is designed for people interested in pursuing a career in evidence investigation, whether it’s at a crime scene or in a laboratory. Some degrees may also prepare you for arson investigation.

Jobs You Can Get

  • Police Officer
  • Detective
  • Crime Scene Investigator
  • Forensic Science Technician

Classes You’ll Take

  • Chemistry
  • Evidence Handling
  • Biological Evidence
  • Crime Scene Technology
  • Photography
  • Offender Profiling

Associate Degree in Computer Forensics

An associate in computer forensics can teach you how to prevent, detect, and respond to cybercrimes. It combines knowledge of technology with specialized investigative methods.

Jobs You Can Get

  • Cyber Police
  • Digital Security Technician or Manager
  • Cyber Security Specialist

Classes You’ll Take

  • Digital Crime
  • Digital Forensics
  • Cyber Security
  • Information Security Management
  • Digital Evidence
  • IT Auditing

Which Bachelor’s Degrees Should Law Enforcement Officials Consider?

For a career in law enforcement, a bachelor’s degree will give you broader perspectives and may prepare you for future leadership roles or administrative positions.

A bachelor’s degree gives you a more comprehensive education than an associate degree. You’ll take more classes in your major and may delve deeper into the subject matter. You could also have more opportunities to broaden your experience with internships, study abroad, and clubs.

Many of the same programs offered as associate degrees, such as criminal justice and computer forensics, are also offered at the bachelor’s-degree level.

Bachelor’s degrees also give you the opportunity to choose a minor area of study to supplement your major. Vesna Markovic, professor of criminal justice at Lewis University near Chicago, suggests that a minor in such subjects as psychology, social work, or computer science may give you an edge on the competition in your job search. Knowing a second language can also be beneficial, she says.

“You may be competing with people who have all have advanced degrees, so what else do you have to bring to the table?” Markovic asks.

Traditionally, full-time bachelor’s degrees take four years to complete. You may finish sooner if you take classes during the summer or attend an online school that offers an accelerated program.

To get a bachelor’s degree in any program, you will need to complete up to 60 credit hours of general education courses such as math, English, science, social science, humanities, and health. About 120 credit hours are required to earn a degree.

Most colleges and universities allow you to transfer credits from an accredited associate degree program or previous college studies.

Some common degree programs that can help you get a job as a police officer or advance to the next rank include the following: 

Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice

The bachelor’s degree in criminal justice is similar to the associate degree, but you’ll take more courses, and after finishing your core classes, you may be able to choose electives in a specialized concentration. These vary widely from one university to the next, but some common concentrations other than law enforcement include crime scene investigation, homeland security, juvenile justice, corrections, police administration.

Jobs You Can Get

  • Police Officer
  • Patrol Officer
  • Detective
  • Correctional Officer
  • Probation Officer

Classes You’ll Take

  • Criminal Justice
  • Policing
  • Legal Issues
  • Juvenile Justice
  • Criminal Investigation
  • Ethics

Bachelor of Sociology and Criminology

If you want a sociology degree in law enforcement, look for a major that combines sociology with criminal justice. These programs are offered by only a few universities, mostly as concentrations for a sociology degree. You’ll study the causes of criminal behavior, including societal and psychological issues, as well as social attitudes toward criminal justice and the criminal justice system.

Jobs You Can Get

  • Probation Officer
  • Juvenile Probation
  • Substance Abuse Counselor
  • Parole Officer
  • Crime Prevention Strategist

Classes You’ll Take

  • Sociology and Sociological Methods
  • Psychology
  • Criminal Justice
  • Law and Society
  • Sociology of Deviance

Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice Management

The degree of criminal justice management may stand alone or may be offered as a concentration of a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice, Criminology, or Public Administration. The program not only covers policing and crime investigation, but also court processes and law enforcement agency management. For police officers aiming at a promotion, the bachelor of science in Criminal Justice Management might be helpful.

Jobs You Can Get

  • Police Officer
  • Detective
  • Probation or Parole Officer
  • Security Manager
  • Juvenile Officer
  • Investigator

Classes You’ll Take

  • Criminal Law
  • Political Science
  • Cultural Diversity
  • Agency Management
  • Ethics
  • Corrections and Punishment
  • Criminal Procedures

Bachelor of Forensic Psychology

Forensic psychology is usually offered as a concentration of a psychology degree. You’ll look at psychological issues that may impact or relate to law enforcement and the justice system, such as criminal behavior, mental illness, the correctional system, and public policies. Many forensic psychologists go on to get master’s and doctorate degrees.

Jobs You Can Get

  • Victim Advocate
  • Jury Consultant
  • Police Psychologist
  • Probation Officer
  • Crime Analyst

Classes You’ll Take

  • Psychology
  • Social Psychology
  • Criminality
  • Drugs and Addiction
  • Personality
  • Interview Tactics
  • Tests and Measurements

Bachelor of Cyber Security

A bachelor of cyber security is designed to prepare you to prevent and fight cybercrimes such as hacking, ransomware, identity theft, and security breaches. Cyber security analysts may be employed by law enforcement agencies or private companies. While studying for your degree, you may also be able to earn IT certifications.

Jobs You Can Get

  • Cyber Security Consultant
  • Forensic Computer Analyst

Classes You’ll Take

  • Information Technology
  • Web Development
  • Data Management
  • Programming Languages
  • Network Design

Advanced Law Enforcement Degrees to Help Further Your Career

After serving a few years as a police or patrol officer, you may qualify for a promotion. Moving up through the ranks may usually require additional education and training. For the highest ranks, such as captain or commander, a master’s or doctoral degree could be advantageous. You might also be able to further your career by specializing in a field of law enforcement.

It’s not unusual for police officers to study for college degrees while they continue to work. Classes for advanced degrees are often held in the evening and weekend. Online degrees are also available. 

Popular degrees include:

Master of Criminal Justice

You can gain a deeper understanding of crime and the criminal justice system. This degree can prepare you to qualify for a promotion to a higher rank such as a detective, sergeant, and lieutenant.

Master of Law Enforcement Leadership

This degree emphasizes management and administration skills in the field of law enforcement. You could become qualified for a promotion to a supervisory position in the police department or for similar leadership jobs such as prison warden or director of probation or parole division.

Master of Public Safety Administration

This degree is designed with first responders in mind. You can learn more about managing public service organizations, including police departments. It can prepare you for leadership and supervisory positions within a police department or related jobs such as EMT supervisor or chief security officer.

Master of Forensic Psychology

Forensic psychology focuses on understanding the psychological issues related to criminology and the criminal justice system. The degree can be helpful for police officers wishing to specialize in areas such as victim advocate, probation or parole, juvenile justice, or jury consultant.

Doctor of Criminal Justice

A doctorate is the highest degree you can get in any field. In criminal justice, you can gain advanced knowledge about criminal theory, approaches to fighting and preventing crime, and the role of the justice system in society. The degree can prepare you for a management or analyst position such as chief of police or chief of security. You may also qualify to teach college courses in criminal justice.

Doctor of Public Administration

Public administration is a degree suitable for anyone in a career of public service. In studying for a Doctor of Public Administration, police officers can learn about organizational leadership and policy analysis. The degree can prepare you for any supervisory or management position in a law enforcement agency or similar roles such as director of emergency management or chief security officer.

Can I Get a Law Enforcement Degree Online?

Courses for associate and bachelor’s degrees in criminal justice, law enforcement, and other degrees can be taken entirely online.

Some online programs partner with local agencies to offer internships and other kinds of practical experience. If your school doesn’t, you should seek out hands-on opportunities on your own, recommends Vesna Markovic, associate professor at Lewis University near Chicago.

Some online programs partner with local agencies to offer internships and other kinds of practical experience.

“Look for opportunities for experiential education, such as doing internships, studying abroad, or researching with a professor,” Markovic advises. There are also student chapters of law enforcement associations and clubs.

However, earning any degree is just the beginning of a police career. You must also attend a police training academy. That’s where you can receive the practical training you need to do police work.

Do States Require a Degree to Become a Police Officer?

There isn’t a national standard for educational requirements for police officers. It’s up to each individual law enforcement agency to set hiring qualifications.

Most local and state police departments require only a high school diploma to start out as a police officer but will offer incentives such as pay increases or tuition reimbursements for officers to earn an associate or bachelor’s degree. You can easily check the requirements of each police organization you’re interested in on its website.

Some departments require a certain number of college credit hours, military service, or previous experience as a police officer.

Do Police Officers Make More Money with a College Degree?

Many factors determine a police officer’s pay, but in general, officers with college degrees may make more money. Police departments may pay an extra, flat amount per year or increase pay by a certain percentage.

What the Police Academy Could Be Like

At a police training academy, you can acquire the knowledge, skills, and physical ability to become a police officer.

A typical day begins with physical training to develop the strength and stamina that a police officer needs. This training can include running, lifting weights, climbing, and agility exercises.

Then, you’ll move on to the classroom, where you will learn about laws and the criminal justice system. Your classes may be taught by active duty or retired police officers, college professors, or experts within their field, Webb explains. For a course about law, your teacher may be a lawyer, for example.

Classroom studies also focus on communication skills and report writing.

Training in police techniques covers skills such as defense tactics, firearms handling, and pursuit driving. You will also learn the proper way to use tools such as a breathalyzer.

Once you pass all tests and meet all standards, you’ll graduate from the academy, but in most cases, you will still not be prepared for a job as a police officer. It’s common for law enforcement agencies to require candidates to spend a certain number of weeks riding along with a police training officer on the job.

The length and timing of police academy training varies from location to the next. “Some agencies have their own academies,” Webb explains. “Some form co-ops or regional academies.”

In some states, you must complete police academy training before applying for a job. In others, you are accepted as a candidate, and then you go through the training. 

“It all depends on where you want to go and where you want to work,” Webb states.

karen hanson

Written and researched by:

Karen S. Hanson

Contributing Writer

stephen webb

With professional insights from:

Stephen Webb

Principal Lecturer and Criminal Justice Lead, Regent University

vesna markovic

Vesna Markovic

Chair and Associate Professor of Justice, Law, and Public Safety, Lewis University