Questionable Police Reform: New Orleans PD Axes Education Requirement
By Leischen Stelter
The New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) no longer has a higher education requirement for recruits. The change, effective Feb. 9, was sought by Police Superintendent Michael Harrison, who said that the agency could fill open positions more quickly if it eliminated an education mandate that requires recruits to have 60 hours of college credit or two years of military experience, reported the New Orleans Advocate.
Harrison said that last year the department had 3,000 applications, but only 3 percent of them made it to the training phase. Another 1,000 applicants were turned away before being considered because they did not meet the education requirement. Currently the agency is understaffed and intends to hire nearly 450 officers, from 1,158 current officers to 1,600, said Harrison.
The State of NOPD
In July 2012, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the most sweeping police reform program ever enacted by the Justice Department to overhaul the NOPD. This program aimed to resolve allegations that New Orleans police officers engaged in a pattern of discriminatory and unconstitutional activity by revamping the department’s policies and procedures for use of force, training, interrogations, searches and arrests, recruitment, and supervision.
So what does the DOJ think about NOPD’s latest move? According to the newspaper, the DOJ has expressed concern that eliminating the education requirement could reduce the quality of recruits, but has not taken a formal position.
The article notes that when the department initially approved the education requirement in 2010, it used literature and research to support the benefits of employing officers with a college education. That research hasn’t just disappeared.
Research conducted by Jason Rydberg and Dr. William Terrill from Michigan State University provides evidence that having a college degree significantly reduces the likelihood that officers will use force as their first option to gain compliance. The study also discovered evidence that educated officers demonstrate greater levels of creativity and problem-solving skills, wrote Mark Bond, criminal justice faculty at American Military University (AMU).
“A formal education teaches critical-thinking and problem-solving skills,” said Dr. Chuck Russo, program director of criminal justice at AMU. “These are vital to officers on the street and those involved with community policing, especially since discretion plays such a large part in officer-citizen contacts. The policy and procedure books agencies use can only cover so many situations and scenarios—the rest is up to the individual officer.”
The Benefits of Educated Officers
Many police chiefs seek out educated officers because it makes the agency stronger. For example, Chief Joel Hurliman has spent his 37-year police career with the Shelton Police Department in Connecticut and has been the chief since 2006. His department does not have an education requirement, but candidates with a four-year degree are preferred. “Studies have found that officers who have achieved a four-year degree have lower discipline rates statistically,” Hurliman said.
He puts a lot of weight on education, personally and professionally. He holds two master’s degrees and strongly encourages his officers to further their own education. In total, 24 of his 50 officers have a degree, with several others working towards it.
One of the greatest advantages of having educated officers is that they often have very strong writing skills. “Writing reports is a basic part of the job and it goes all the way to the top,” Hurliman said. He added that a degree also demonstrates self-discipline and a solid work ethic: “People with degrees are finishers. We’re not going to have to chase them around to finish a report.”
So wouldn’t NOPD, which is under federal reform because of its officers’ poor performance and actions, want to reduce the likelihood of such incidents by hiring educated officers who are more likely to make better decisions, have fewer discipline issues, and show stronger work ethic?
Unfortunately, the situation in New Orleans could actually get worse: Now that the education requirement for recruits has been eliminated, there is now a push to get rid of all education mandates within the command structure so no one in the organization will be required to have a higher education. Eliminating education from the equation is not the path to successful reform.