Continuing education: expanding opportunities for officers

Domenick Varricchio

As one of the byproducts of the policing subculture, many law enforcement administrators become conditioned to looking at situations from a “zero-sum” perspective. That is, in order for one party to win, another party must lose.

While this model might apply to apprehension or arrest situations, it should not characterize a department’s approach to professional development for its officers. In fact, a solid emphasis on continuing education is a winning proposition for all parties involved – the department, the officer, and the community.

Although law enforcement as a profession may have been slow to recognize the full value of education as a complement to specific job-related training, an increasing number of administrators now view it as an important component of a complete transition to community-based policing. As officers move to interact with citizens in new ways and address a wide range of issues that impact crime problems in a community, continuing education helps enhance the problem-solving skills necessary for officers to operate successfully in this environment. In agencies across the country, revised mission statements mandate skills far beyond the rudimentary mechanics of uniformed patrol. At the same time, a broader approach toward enhanced professionalism involves higher educational levels, coupled with increased interpersonal, technical, and managerial skills.

One of the challenges that confronts progressive police managers is how to make educational opportunities accessible to officers. In the late 1970s, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Public Safety Department was among the first law enforcement agencies in the country to develop an off-campus continuing education program in conjunction with a local university. Today, the program continues to expand and serves as a model for the type of constructive partnership that can exist between law enforcement and institutions of higher learning.

The growing program is a reflection of the evolving emphasis on education within the law enforcement profession. During the past three decades, education levels have risen steadily in the nation’s police agencies. To attract and retain the types of individuals needed to fulfill the challenging community-based mandates of the 21st century, law enforcement agencies should not focus only on higher educational levels for recruits but also should work to increase educational opportunities available to all officers on the force.

A Call for Higher Learning

The vast majority of police candidates who entered the profession from the end of World War II through the mid-1970s were military veterans in their early 20s, with high school or equivalency diplomas, seeking job security in a semiskilled, blue-collar environment. Police and fire departments offered this type of security with a steady income, excellent fringe benefits, and – like the military – early retirement eligibility after 20 to 25 years of service or at age 55, depending on the jurisdiction.

Amid the race riots and social protests of the 1960s, the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice called for all police officers to possess college degrees.(1) Since this call was issued in 1967, law enforcement agencies and civil service commissions in a growing number of communities have raised educational requirements from the traditional high school diploma to 2- or 4-year degrees with a major in criminal justice or a related field.

Inevitably, this trend has met with a host of proponents and detractors. Many critics believe that certain criminal justice programs are merely extensions of basic recruit training, rather than substantial disciplines relating to pertinent sociological and psychological issues. Others challenge the correlation between classroom theory and the reality of the streets – calling into question the value of a college education as it relates to police work. Still others fear that college-educated officers will quickly tire of the irregular hours, constant pressures, and relative low pay of policing and move on to greener pastures more readily than their counterparts without degrees.

Although these concerns should not be dismissed lightly, the experiences of departments across the country have shown that the advantages of increased education levels in policing generally far outweigh the potential disadvantages. A firm educational foundation not only enhances officers’ general knowledge, but it also helps strengthen the problem-solving skills that have become integral to contemporary policing. As the importance of education in policing has grown, an increasing number of departments have instituted policies mandating educational requirements for appointments, specific assignments, and promotions, particularly to senior management positions.

Enhancing Prospects

Clearly, the move toward higher education levels benefits individual officers as it benefits their departments. Officers who obtain degrees, either before joining a department or while serving in an agency, enhance their potential value in the job market considerably. An officer’s employment prospects become an important issue as the officer approaches retirement age.(2) Most second career jobs of any merit require college education in addition to an individual’s experience in police service. A resume must be broad-based to attract the attention of prospective employers, all of whom are aware of the pension entitlement available to officers after they separate from an agency. Higher education degrees often become the clincher, or at least the tie-breaker, when retirees interview for positions in the job market.

Basic recruit, in-service, and other specialized training officers receive cannot compete with a college degree from an accredited institution. Prospective employers outside law enforcement generally view police training as instruction in job-related concepts, whereas they view higher education as focusing on a deeper understanding and discussion of concepts from a more historical, theoretical, and philosophical level.

Interviewers perceive the educated job candidate as one who can converse on a variety of topics beyond the often-narrow confines of an occupation. They also realize that police retirees with higher education have sacrificed time, effort, and expense to achieve their goals. Although many universities accept and award undergraduate, and in some cases, graduate credit for certain recognized police training courses, it generally has been left to individual officers to balance rotating shifts, job stress, family responsibilities, and other forces to pursue the majority of those degree credits.

Port Authority Program

In 1977, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Public Safety Department was among the first law enforcement agencies in the country to offer an off-campus police graduate studies program in conjunction with the New Jersey State Police and the College of Education and Human Services of Seton Hall University. Since its founding by a former police chaplain 20 years ago, the program has awarded graduate degrees to hundreds of law enforcement officers from the Port Authority, as well as personnel from other federal, state, county, and municipal agencies.

Currently, graduate studies facilities are located in six counties in New Jersey. Students may attend classes at any of the sites and often do so in order to accommodate their academic requirements as they near the program’s completion.

The graduate program offers a concentration of courses in the science of administration and supervision and human resources training and development. Additional courses are offered in ethics for the helping professions, psychological issues and implications, and directed research for administrators. In addition to a fully accredited 36-credit masters degree program, the college offers a certificate program for students who successfully complete 12 credits, either in human resources training and development or leadership and management.

Among its distinctive features, the program allows law enforcement personnel to attend classes in close proximity to where they live and work, which reduces overhead expenditures for the institution and enables the agency to negotiate lower tuition rates for its members. The Port Authority Police receive a 40 percent scholarship from Seton Hall University and additional financial support through the department’s tuition assistance program. Personnel who qualify may receive up to 80 percent reimbursement for tuition costs. This benefit, coupled with the scholarship, helps make the program affordable. Officers may secure additional financial assistance through federal or university loans, and military veterans can apply tuition benefits to the program.

Academically, the program is designed to strengthen students’ professional knowledge and skills and enhance their capacity for leadership in a wide spectrum of environments. It is staffed by full-time faculty from Seton Hall and qualified active and retired law enforcement officers, who serve as adjunct professors. The adjunct faculty rotates among the various off-campus sites, providing instructors an opportunity to expand teaching skills and experience the various disciplines offered at each location.

Course requirements also are tailored to meet changing needs in criminal justice. During the past several years, courses in leadership, ethics, finance, policy, administration, statistics, and a number of other pertinent subjects have been introduced into the graduate curriculum. Students take these classes in addition to the mandatory foundation courses.

Developing a Program

Selling the concept of a police undergraduate, graduate, or certificate program may be easier than it once was. Until recently, upper-level management positions in agencies were inundated with administrators who knew little about administration and generally frowned on higher education as a means to enhance police performance and management.

Today, the story is different, and the composition of the upper-level administrative ranks in police agencies across the country reflects the quiet revolution that has taken place. A large-scale study in Illinois conducted during the mid-1980s indicated a substantial increase from past years in academic qualifications for police chiefs: Of those surveyed, nearly 50 percent held bachelor’s degrees and 21 percent held graduate degrees.(3) In the years since that study, growing numbers of college-educated officers have assumed leadership roles in law enforcement agencies. Thirty years after the President’s Commission, higher education levels have at last become a hallmark for executive-level offices in agencies across the country.(4)

The logical extension of this move toward higher education levels among the executive ranks is to expand the emphasis on education throughout the rank structure of law enforcement agencies. To this end, departments should explore ways to make educational opportunities not only available but also convenient to officers. Although more than half of all police agencies currently offer educational pay incentives or tuition assistance programs to officers, only a small fraction have policies in place to more directly accommodate higher education programs for officers.(5)

As the Police Graduate Studies Program model demonstrates, an important component of programs of this type is close cooperation between the senior management staff of the law enforcement agency and the learning institution. In January 1997, the program expanded to offer a distinct on-site graduate program for the Port Authority Police. Nearly 100 officers are currently enrolled in this on-site program.


For the past 20 years, Police Graduate Studies Program alumni have distinguished themselves in their respective agencies, using their education to enhance their abilities and performance. Many have gone on to enjoy productive postretirement careers. Several have become public safety directors for both public sector agencies and private organizations. Some have become associate professors at Seton Hall and other institutions of higher learning. Still others have become chiefs of police in surrounding communities.

The success and popularity among officers of the Police Graduate Studies Program can be attributed to several important factors.

* The program focuses on areas of study viewed as relevant and practical to law enforcement officers who have an interest in the supervisory and managerial aspects of police work

* Classes are offered at several off-campus sites, making the program convenient for officers

* The Port Authority arranged a group scholarship price structure and provided tuition incentives, making the program economically viable for officerS.

Further, officers understand that attaining a graduate degree enhances their value to their current agency as well as improving their value in the job market.

Agencies that wish to increase their education levels can adapt the basic principles of programs such as the one developed between the Port Authority and Seton Hall University.(6) Whether agencies develop graduate, undergraduate, or certificate programs, the basic tenets of relevance, convenience, and economic viability will encourage officer interest and involvement.


In the 80 years since police visionary August Vollmer introduced college-educated officers into the Berkeley, California, Police Department, agencies have moved slowly toward increasing educational levels in the policing profession. Despite repeated calls to raise the education levels of police officers, significant practical obstacles – as well as philosophical ones – have impeded progress in this area. Now that the philosophical obstacles have gradually diminished, progressive law enforcement administrators must work to address the remaining practical barriers to enhancing educational opportunities for officers. By working closely with institutions of higher learning, agencies can develop degree and certificate programs that are relevant, convenient, and economically viable for officers. By combining these factors with a work environment that encourages higher learning, agencies can develop a program that helps officers prepare for the postretirement job market as it enhances their value to their agencies and their communities today.


1 Edward A. Thibault, Lawrence M. Lynch, and R. Bruce McBride, Proactive Police Management, 3rd. ed. (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1995), 263-264.

2 See William Rehm, “Retirement: A New Chapter, Not the End of the Story,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, September 1996, 6.

3 Keith I. Chandler, “The Importance of Education in Police Chief Selection,” Police Chief, January 1984, 28.

4 David L. Carter, Allen D. Sapp, and Darrel W. Stephens, “The State of Police Education: Policy Direction for the 21st Century,” (Washington, DC: Police Executive Research Forum, 1989), 59-65.

5 Ibid.

6 For more information about the Police Graduate Studies Program, contact the author at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Port Authority Police, Goethals Bridge Administration Building, Staten Island, New York 10303.

Lieutenant Domenick Varricchio serves with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Public Safety Department in Staten Island, New York.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Federal Bureau of Investigation

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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