In the debate over college for cops, maybe it’s time to rethink what success and potential look like


Dear PERF Members,

When I worked as an intern in the Boston Police Department in the 1970s, one of my best friends was Paul Carr. I have no idea why we hit it off, because we could not have been more different. He grew up in the working-class neighborhood of Dorchester and went to the local public high school on Dunbar Avenue, which he referred to affectionately as “Dumb-bar Academy.” I, on the other hand, was a kid from the suburbs of Boston and a graduate student at MIT. But I learned so much from him.

Paul had not gone to college – but he had a PhD in common sense. He could spot a phony a mile away and personified the “stand-up guy,” which in Boston was about the highest compliment you could pay to someone. It meant you were trustworthy and dependable.  

Paul and I worked in the Community Disorders Unit, which had been established in the wake of the Boston school desegregation battles to investigate and prevent possible hate crimes. One night, the home of a minority family in East Boston was firebombed. Responding to the scene, Paul immediately knew what to do: he drove the family to a hotel and used his personal credit card to put them up.

The college-educated cops I knew may have had more book-smarts, but many didn’t have the people skills or character or life experience that Paul did. Those family members had a horrific experience that night, but Paul Carr helped them realize that there were still good people who cared.

I’ve been thinking about Paul this week after reading that the Chicago Police Department, in an attempt to broaden and diversify the pool of police officer applicants, is waiving the requirement that recruits come in with at least 60 college credits. That can now be substituted with three or more years of experience in professions such as the military, corrections, private security, health care, education, or social services.

Philadelphia and New Orleans dropped similar requirements a few years ago, but I was particularly surprised by Chicago’s decision because the department has always prioritized education. The CPD has one of the most generous tuition reimbursement programs in the profession, covering the full cost of tuition for cops who want to complete an undergraduate or master’s degree and who maintain exceptional grades. There is partial reimbursement for other degrees and for cops who don’t get straight A’s.

It’s not unusual to get into a Chicago squad car and find it’s being driven by an officer with a master’s degree in business administration or a law degree. I’ve often remarked that it might be easier for a Chicago cop to get a college degree than to become a sergeant – because at times the department has gone several years without administering a sergeant’s exam!

This got me thinking: Is reducing the educational requirement for new recruits the right move for Chicago and other agencies?

On the one hand, policing has become more sophisticated – with new technologies, a wider range of responsibilities, and more complex decisions to make – so having college-educated cops would seem to make sense. College can help develop analytical and problem-solving skills, increase exposure to people with different backgrounds or life experiences, and foster a deeper sense of curiosity. Plus, there is an extensive body of research over the last two decades indicating that officers with some college education (an associate’s degree or higher) are less likely to use force or to be involved in misconduct.

But then there is the commander in a major city police department who I have known for many years. She is a single mother who raised four children by herself, all while climbing through the ranks of her agency. Between her family and her job, she simply didn’t have the time to attend college. Like Paul Carr, her common sense and amazing people skills have made her so successful. But if there had been a college requirement when she came on the job, her agency and her community would have missed out on an exceptional cop.

As police departments and sheriffs’ offices struggle to fill their ranks, it’s understandable that they do not want to limit their candidate pool to those people who have completed some college. After all, only about a third of Americans have a bachelor’s degree.

Shaping this whole discussion is the ongoing national debate about policing and what makes for a good cop. To me, this is all about hiring people with both the skills and the character to be good cops today and great police leaders tomorrow.

So yes, who could argue against hiring college-educated cops with character? But should we really be ignoring those people who have significant life experiences and have accomplished a great deal outside the classroom? I don’t want to deny that talented single mother, who was able to raise four kids but couldn’t find time for college, a chance to get into policing.

This is a situation where I think we truly can have it both ways.

Agencies that have college requirements and are able to recruit officers with both skills and character should probably keep their requirements in place. Arlington, Texas was one of the first big-city police departments to require a bachelor’s degree, and it has enjoyed success over the years in recruiting, hiring, and retaining an ample cohort of quality officers.

But at the same time, we should broaden our definition of what accomplishment and potential look like. I’m thinking of people like Paul Carr or my commander friend who have overcome adversity or a lack of opportunity. Why not find ways to get them into the profession and then encourage and enable them to further their education while they are working?

Some departments have Police Cadet programs that follow this model very successfully. Chuck Ramsey started his illustrious career as a Cadet in the Chicago Police Department. So did Billie Evans in Boston. Today, the Lansing, Michigan Police Department recruits approximately half of its new officers through its Cadet program.

But agencies need to think even more broadly and creatively, like the New Orleans Police Department did in 2019 when it dropped its college education requirement. The NOPD upgraded its interview process to vigorously screen candidates for both skills and integrity, and it still considers education when evaluating applicants.

Like Chicago, the NOPD strongly encourages its officers to continue their education after they are hired. Officers can attend area colleges at discounted tuition. And there are incentives for them to complete their degrees, including a bump in pay for each degree they earn. NOPD members must also have an associate’s degree to be promoted to sergeant and a bachelor’s degree to reach lieutenant.

All police agencies should be encouraging and facilitating the ongoing education of their members throughout their careers. An applicant’s degree should count in their favor, even when it’s not a requirement. But as Chicago and New Orleans have demonstrated, officers should be encouraged to further their education after they have a foot in the door.

What do I hope the officer of the future will look like? I hope it’s a combination of Paul Carr, with his PhD in common sense, and a college graduate, who may have earned their degree while also serving the community.


A Gift to PERF

Finally, I wanted to share some fantastic news. MacKenzie Scott, the author and philanthropist, recently made a $10 million donation to PERF that will allow us to dramatically expand our work and our impact. To say that we were blown away by this incredible act of generosity is an understatement.

As you know, PERF’s mission has always been to help police agencies across the country find ways to bring communities together, reduce crime, and offer aid to vulnerable people, including immigrants and people experiencing homelessness, mental illness, drug addiction, and poverty. We’ve also created national policies on use of force and an evidence-informed training program – ICAT – to teach officers how to resolve difficult situations without using force, if at all possible.

MacKenzie Scott’s generosity will allow PERF to increase our impact by reaching more agencies and more communities. The heart of PERF’s work is about respecting the sanctity of human life and recognizing the importance of how a good cop and a good police leader can make a positive difference in people’s lives. We are thrilled that Ms. Scott’s donation will help us achieve that vision.

On behalf of the founders of PERF, our Board of Directors, members, staff, and the communities we serve, I sincerely thank MacKenzie Scott for her thoughtful and impactful gift.