In Louisiana, as in most places across the country, a college degree usually isn’t needed to become a law enforcement officer.
But, both here and elsewhere, more cops are now armed with college experience than ever before, according to local law enforcement agencies and experts on policing trends, although the data itself remains sparse.
The reasons for the rise run the gamut.
Many agencies, including the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office and the Baton Rouge Police Department, offer pay incentives to officers with certain levels of post-high school education. A growing body of research suggests police officers are generally better off with some college credit under their belt. And more Americans as a whole are attending and completing college than ever before, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
“It does seem to be that’s the general trend,” said Charlotte Lansinger, an expert in recruiting at the Police Executive Research Forum. “A requirement for a certain amount of education is just becoming more commonplace.”
None of the major police agencies in Baton Rouge — the Sheriff’s Office, the Police Department and the State Police — requires either a college degree or college experience. However, all three agencies reported seeing an increase in the proportion of entrants with at least some college credit to their name.
“There has been an upward trend in those with college degrees applying for law enforcement,” said Sgt. Darron Leach, BRPD’s training academy commander.
Leach said the department in the past few years has spent more time trying to recruit from college students. Often, though, there isn’t an abundance of interest from students outside of criminal justice programs.
Still, especially in the aftermath of the Great Recession that began in 2007, police departments can be attractive to young adults looking for a stable job with reliable benefits, Leach said.
At both the Police Department and the Sheriff’s Office, roughly a third of their employees with the power of arrest are receiving some form of higher education incentive pay, which ranges from several hundred dollars per year to several thousand dollars per year, depending on the level of college an officer completed.
In 2000, the Sheriff’s Office employed 185 detectives and uniform patrol deputies, of which about 15 percent had either 80 hours of college credit, an associate degree or a bachelor’s degree. Today, nearly a third of such employees have some college experience, and the majority of those carry bachelor’s degrees, according to figures provided by the Sheriff’s Office.
At the Police Department, about 260 of roughly 650 sworn officers receive incentive pay for an associate degree, a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree, according to figures provided by the department.
While the department couldn’t provide numbers from previous years, Leach, the recruiting commander, said the numbers are definitely up.
While graduate degrees are becoming a near requirement for police chief applicants across the country, the leaders of the capital area’s two largest local law enforcement agencies prove a college degree still isn’t necessary to reach the top of an agency. Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie Jr. and Sheriff Sid Gautreaux — both products of Baker High School — attended college. But neither man earned a degree.
Gautreaux, who served as Baker’s police chief for nearly 30 years before being elected sheriff in 2007, said he simply took advantage of opportunities as they arrived. He also said the Sheriff’s Office encourages applicants with college experience with pay incentives, but unless the degree is in the realm of criminal justice, it might not provide much practical help, he said.
According to the most recent national data available on college experience among police officers, few agencies across the country require college degrees for entry into their academies.
In Baton Rouge, the Police Department, the Sheriff’s Office and the State Police all allow a certain number of credits to act as a portion of the necessary requirements to qualify as a law enforcement officer. And among the three, State Police is alone in that they don’t provide incentive pay for college graduates, said Sgt. Nick Manale, a State Police spokesman.
However, particularly after the Legislature recently boosted starting pay for state troopers, State Police cadets generally start off making several thousand dollars more per year than their counterparts at either the BRPD or the Sheriff’s Office.
Manale also said cadets are increasingly more educated than cadets from years past. Without examining hard data on the trend, Manale said it seems like the percentage of applicants with college degrees has climbed noticeably even in the last five years.
“We want to attract the best and brightest,” Manale said.
In an “interim report” published earlier this month by The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, a group of law enforcement experts tasked by President Barack Obama with offering up solutions to improve American police agencies, the group recommended offering more incentives for cops to get college degrees.
“The federal government should encourage and support partnerships between law enforcement and academic institutions to support a culture that values ongoing education and the integration of current research into the development of training, policies, and practices,” the report says.
Ronal Serpas, the recently retired superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department who now teaches criminal justice at Loyola University New Orleans, highlighted some of the benefits associated with college degrees among officers. College experience usually means a more efficient training period with less emphasis on basic communication skills. Plus, a substantial amount of research has shown officers with more education are less likely to use force, he said.
The New Orleans Police Department recently made a move seemingly against the grain of the national trend by eliminating a requirement implemented by Serpas to mandate either 60 hours of college credit or two years of military experience for incoming officers. City and department officials said they made the change to woo more recruits to the understaffed department, although critics said they might not attract the right kind of applicants by cutting college education requirements.
Serpas said some people will say a high school degree “is sufficient and has been for some time.”
But there was once a time when that also was true for doctors and lawyers, he said.
“We must do all we can to ensure higher educational achievement for police officers to advance the policing profession,” Serpas said.
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