Do police officers and criminal investigators need a college degree? What are the benefits of a graduate criminal justice degree? After 20 years in the field, I believe I know the answer. But before I give you my advice, I’d like to share my personal journey with you.
How it All Begins
For those of you who have been in the criminal justice profession for a while or those just beginning a search in the profession, it begins internally with a desire to answer a calling.
For me, it was 1981. I was 5 years old when I walked outside to the parking lot on a Sunday morning. A close family friend visited the small community. He was a full-time sworn police officer of the local metropolitan police department. Although officially off-duty at the time, he was authorized to use a take-home vehicle. The police car, a white 1980 Chevrolet Caprice with a solid blue emergency light bar across the top immediately caught my attention. I had only seen a car like this in my toy car collection. This was a “real life” police car. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it.
Moments later, he asked me if I had ever been in a real police car? My answer was the most solid response a nervous and shy 5-year-old could muster up at the time … “No, sir. Never.” “Then come on, son” he said. “Come check this out!”
He opened the driver-side door. I crawled up and sat behind the wheel, as I admired all the switches. The sights were exhilarating: There were switches for emergency lights, a police radio squawking all types of radio “traffic,” extra handcuffs, a plastic box affixed to the passenger seat with all types of forms, and a spotlight handle mounted above the left side of the steering wheel. “This is me,” I thought without hesitation.
He then yelled with excitement as he pointed inside to a control box of switches, “That one … flip that switch right there and let me show you something!” I immediately engaged the switch labeled “blue lights” as he tossed me up into the air and held me above the vehicle to show me the strobes of cobalt mounted on the top of the vehicle. As those lights rotated and flashed in my eyes, I was convinced that one day, I would become a police officer. I did 14 years later.
As I write this article, it is difficult to believe two decades have passed since I began a criminal justice career as a police officer. Time has gone by quickly. I have no regrets of my choice to pursue public service. After starting my law enforcement career in the military, I graduated from a state criminal justice training academy. I served on municipal departments in two states, which grew my experience and appreciation for diversity. After the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001, I wanted to do more as a criminal investigator. Knowing a graduate degree would be a competitive factor to become a special agent, I returned to college to pursue a graduate degree during my off-duty time.
For the last 15 years, I have been a special agent in federal law enforcement, conducting criminal investigations, counterterrorism operations and homeland security matters. I investigated and arrested terrorists, violent felons, drug traffickers, would-be spies, and old-fashioned white-collar criminals. I promoted to a headquarters unit and then returned to a field office to lead domestic terrorism operations. During that time, I completed a doctorate degree, while seeking opportunities to teach and mentor others. The mentor advice I most often provide is never stop learning.
Why higher education for criminal investigators?
For those who want to become criminal investigators, it takes motivation and action.
The criminal justice profession is demanding.
Between shift work, emergency response, recall scenarios, training mandates, and the like, the profession encumbers one’s life. Because of the often-rotating schedule, required court appearances at odd times, meetings with prosecutors, and augmentation for short-staffing of other shifts, it is challenging for criminal justice professionals to find time for school. Attending a traditional classroom or brick-and-mortar program to fulfill higher education goals is an arduous challenge. Pursuing a graduate degree often translates into finding an accredited online program to reach those academic goals.
Why should you continue to learn? Because it makes you a better officer and a more competitive investigator. Contemporary research demonstrates higher education for criminal justice professionals improves individual effectiveness. For example, according to research published in the Journal of Criminal Justice Education, a higher level of education in police officers and criminal investigators facilitates improves communication, exhibits complex problem-solving skills, encourages greater humanistic approaches towards community policing, and increases job-related performance.
I knew to transition from police officer to criminal investigator, my journey demanded more than a bachelor’s degree. When I later realized I wanted to lead other investigators in this profession, I recognized an advanced degree provided credentials and trust. Thankfully, advancements in information technology increased options for obtaining higher education for criminal justice professionals. Officers and investigators can pursue undergraduate and graduate education based on their demanding schedule. Whatever time they can muster can be used to support academic pursuit. Digital texts can be read in passing moments on an electronic device. Essays and course papers can be drafted and completed via laptop in-between shifts. The online discussion board becomes a real-world example to share with peers, creating a community of scholarship in action.
Education to Further Specialization and Leadership
When is it time to lead others? The competition to promote or transition to greater responsibility is fierce. A graduate degree sets one apart by increasing the competitive factor. As society’s expectations grow, a college degree is becoming expected to enter law enforcement, although not always a requirement for entry-level patrol. Many agencies use continued education as a competitive factor for promotion or selection to specialized units such as investigations, forensics, accident reconstruction, or community policing coordinators. While over one-third of police executives (chiefs or sheriffs) hold graduate degrees, the National Police Foundation reported that only 5% of all sworn officers nationwide have earned a graduate degree. Within many agencies, an advanced degree has become a considerable factor for selection to promotion beyond lieutenant and greater opportunities for leadership.
Qualifications of Criminal Investigator
Before 9/11/2001, I enjoyed every aspect of police patrol. I relished traffic enforcement, first response, assisting with injury accidents, driving “code 3” with emergency lights flashing and sirens wailing, answering diverse calls for service. I am thankful for those individuals who continue to do those skills, because our society needs professionals who enjoy conducting patrol. After 9/11/2001, I sought to redefine my criminal justice skillset, but my options were limited until I made myself competitive with a graduate degree. To become a criminal investigator at many levels of government (federal, state, local), the minimum education for entry is a bachelor’s degree. A graduate degree sets you apart from most candidates.
The criminal justice field has changed significantly over the last two decades. While the media has highlighted negative examples, the greater criminal justice profession is one of honor, service and integrity. Hiring managers seek dedicated individuals who are willing to answer a calling of service, combined with a track record of success. One avenue to demonstrate a whole-person concept is the pursuit of graduate education. Society has placed a great emphasis on police officers who are trained and skilled professionals, with an increasing expectation of higher learning as a trend in policing, according to the Journal of Applied Security Research.
What separates the criminal justice profession from other professions is summed up in one word … calling. In the words of my first police chief, “You are never going to get rich. You are never going to be financially wealthy. In fact, you will question your career choice often. But always remember what I am about to share with you. This profession is a calling. It asks something of individuals that not everyone can answer. Only a small percentage of our society can answer this calling.”
The chief was correct.
Those who enter and remain in criminal justice do so because they choose to follow a more difficult but rewarding path. Pursuing a graduate education is one way to demonstrate a continued desire to answer the call, while becoming a competitive candidate armed with multiple resources.
Demonstrate Your Call to Service
The pursuit of a graduate degree demonstrates a deeper appreciation of your call to service. Research proves college educated officers demonstrate higher levels of professionalism, communication, and overall effectiveness in day-to-day operations. In addition, the Journal of Criminal Justice and Security reports that officers and criminal investigators with a graduate education experience greater advancement opportunity, obtain less misconduct allegations, utilize an improved understanding of the criminal justice system, and implore higher levels of human relations in multiple scenarios.
JWU’s online MS – Criminal Justice and MPA – Homeland Security programs are tools to achieve academic goals. JWU offers accredited online criminal justice and homeland security programs to meet the academic needs of contemporary professionals.
Do you have what it takes for this pursuit? Will you answer the call?
Want to learn more about earning your degree with Johnson & Wales University’s College of Online Education? For more information, complete the Request Info form or call 855-JWU-1881.