Policing is a demanding and difficult occupation. Long hours, constant service demands, ever-changing technological and legal environments and heightened levels of public scrutiny can be both energizing and draining for officers. Regardless of the consistently high performance of the majority of officers in any Service, police work gets questioned, and at times is undervalued. While there are some immediate fixes that can be implemented to address this, a longer term structural change in the organization of policing may also help. In particular, establishing the conditions that are present in virtually all other professions will add a degree of legitimacy to police actions and thereby help reduce levels of public mistrust in the institution.
Public Scrutiny and How Policing can be Undervalued
Police organizations, especially in Canada are in place to serve the public good. And officers perform a professional service in the furtherance of that public good. And while there has always been oversight of police actions, the extent and nature of that scrutiny is currently higher for a variety of reasons. These include greater technological capabilities of the public (cell phone cameras, security cameras, police scanners, etc.) and sociological changes that require public officials of all sorts to be more demonstrably accountable for their actions. In addition, the progressive and positive demands for greater equality among all people are heightening awareness of discriminatory, and potentially discriminatory, actions on the part of a whole range of individuals and organizations.
All institutions, including police services are coping with these changes in more or less effective ways. Many of these changes are reactionary, in response to new legislative changes, precedents or organizational directives, and are often effective. Some of these changes include things like having more officers on police advisory boards, new training protocols and content, and deliberate directives to encourage culture change within police services. Most of these initiatives have positive effects, though some fall well short of anticipated outcomes.
In most cases other public service organizations, from school boards to government ministries, are dealing with similar pressures and implementing similar changes. However, despite all of the good work that is done most of the time by most of the people in all of these agencies, they all also face occasional crises when something goes wrong or someone does the wrong thing and it becomes a public issue. These crises are often more dramatic in the context of policing, and often receive more scrutiny. And because of this, the public can lose faith in police organizations and the work of all officers gets undervalued.
How to Re-Establish the Value of Police Work
Existing measures to promote greater trust in police work are valuable and should continue to made a priority. In addition, there are more proactive measures that can be taken to improve both the perception and the performance of police activities. One such measure, that has been implemented elsewhere and has been under discussion for several years in Canada, is to establish a minimum level of education for all officers. The credential that receives the most attention, and the only one that makes sense, is a university undergraduate degree. There are two compelling reasons for pursuing this initiative.
First, police work is a professional activity, and as such it should be treated like one. The problem is that every other profession, from nurses, lawyers and engineers to teachers and architects, has set a university bachelor’s degree as a minimum educational qualification to be able to practice the profession. Policing, and some other first responder professions, are noticeable outliers in this regard, and this reflects on the profession itself.
Second, establishing a bachelor’s degree as a minimum educational qualification is not simply a matter of setting the recruitment bar higher, or credential inflation. There is a legitimate reason for having a bachelor’s degree. University education, from every university in Canada at least, is a broad based education that requires one to develop and practice a wide range of skills including analytic thinking, abstract reasoning, and persuasive oral and written communication, as well as specialized knowledge in the major field of study. The cornerstone of every profession is that practitioners have the autonomy to make professional judgements, and these judgements can only be made by people with a demonstrable ability to use the kinds of skills and knowledge that are learned in an undergraduate degree. And while it is true that most people have the skills (though often not the specific knowledge) that are required to complete a degree, setting this as the minimum is the most visible and efficient way of demonstrating that each person has the ability to make sound professional judgements. This is precisely why other professions have set the bachelor’s degree as a minimum requirement.
The Undergraduate Degree
Setting a minimum level of education is usually part of a larger process of setting up an independent “college” that governs the profession. Several jurisdictions have done this, with the explicit intention of giving officers a greater level of judgment and discretion in their daily work. While this is not something that has been implemented in Canada yet, it has been a topic of significant discussion, and has been recommended across many jurisdictions. For officers without a university degree who are considering enrolling, there are two considerations to keep in mind that are often overlooked.
First, find education opportunities that are relevant and specific to policing, but do not duplicate a lot of the training that is already required. Programs and courses that duplicate what is taught in mandatory training (basic constable training, tactical training, etc) do not add as much value to you as an officer as those that supplement what you have to do anyway.
Second, find education opportunities that will maximize your chances of completion. Normally, adult learners in all fields focus heavily on picking exactly the right program to maximize their chances of promotion, or the so-called quality of the institution. The fact is, every university in Canada offers extremely high quality programs at the undergraduate level and many organizations accept a wide range of degrees for promotional purposes. Personal interest in the subject matter will increase your chances of completing the program. As an officer, presumably policing is of interest, so programs and courses that deal with policing are likely high on your list. Having said that, some people will benefit more from a program that “has nothing to do with work”, so a non-policing degree may be more appropriate.
Also, consider your preferred learning style, without becoming dogmatic about it. For instance, many adults prefer to learn in traditional, on campus classrooms settings, often because that is what they are used to, and because that matches their view of what an educational program should be. This usually means attending classes two or three times a week, often during the day, for four or more years.
However, do not under-estimate the importance of flexibility and scheduling in any program you pick. In fact, the large majority of adult learners who fail to complete their program do so for non-academic reasons, not because they don’t have the ability to handle the material. Most officers have demanding work and home schedules. Can you really get time off every Tuesday and Thursday to attend a class on the other side of town? What if you have to miss a week of classes for work? At most universities, there will be some flexibility to accommodate work schedules, but it will require individual negotiations with every professor of every class. All of a sudden your preference for the traditional classroom may be a less optimal choice than a fully online program.
In a fully online degree, flexibility and fitting your education around your work and home schedules is maximized. The potential disadvantage is that the high degree of flexibility requires the self-discipline to manage time and commitments efficiently, or else the chances of not completing the degree rise significantly. The best programs understand this, and the different nature of the adult professional learner, and put in place the supports to help manage the factors that lead to non-completion. For instance, in the 100% online B.A. in Policing at Laurier, every officer is assigned to a success coach to help manage time and competing demands, and to stay on track towards completion.
Police work is difficult and demands a high level of professionalism from everyone who is chosen to serve. But police activities are subject to a high level of scrutiny and at times this leads to an undervaluing of the service performed. In addition to standard measures to improve police performance, increasing the minimum level of education for officers will improve police legitimacy, and this has received serious consideration over the last several years. For individual officers getting a degree is a way to get ahead of potential new requirements, and improve promotion opportunities. When choosing a degree program, pay attention to the factors that will maximize chances for completion, including the ability to fit the program around your existing schedule.
Assistant Provost: Strategy and Dean of Human and Social Sciences
Wilfrid Laurier University