Will New Qualifications Produce Better Police?

Will New Qualifications Produce Better Police?


Published in Jurist

What if your grandfather was gunned down standing in his own garage? Sadly, that was the reality and demise of 72 year-old Jerry Waller who was shot seven times. The perpetrator, a rookie Fort Worth cop, R.A. "Alex" Hoeppner who was responding to a burglary call, apparently guns blazing. Tragically the call was for a different house, and this inexperienced officer's blunder deprived Waller's family a chance to say good-bye. Young, trigger-happy, often times undereducated, policemen are involved in senseless shootings like this too often. Requiring more education and experience may help rid the impulse deficiencies of youthful police officers. 

Grade school teachers must earn a bachelor's degree and meet instructional standards, including pedagogy, to acquire a teacher's certificate. These educators receive years of academic study culminating in 5-10 months observing an established teacher before becoming eligible to direct their own classes. These qualifications are generally accepted as necessary hurdles as society recognizes the need for quality and competent K-12 instructors. 

Professionals in the service industry have similar heightened barriers of entry. Cosmetologists in all states must earn a certificate from an accredited cosmetology program and complete necessary hours of practice on mannequin heads and live client volunteers. Plumbers, electricians, and carpenters complete four to five years of apprenticeship learning under veterans in the field, to earn their licenses.

This list of professions along with their required education and experience is extensive. Legislatures in concert with labor leaders demand heightened qualifications, recognizing the inherent dangers associated with performing certain duties, absent sufficient education or training.

It is with this knowledge I propose Congress enact legislation adopting minimum standards for qualification to serve as police officer in the United States. Specifically two requirements: 1) institute an age restriction of 25 years by the date of hire; and 2) require a bachelor’s degree in any field (six years of military service with an honorable discharge shall qualify as an alternative to fulfilling the degree requirement. No amount of service circumvents the age requirement).

Uniformity is achieved by issuing the moniker “B.A.D.G.E.” for the proposed law. BADGE represents the, “Balance of Age and a Degree in General Education.” The specific area of undergraduate concentration should never disqualify a candidate since police departments are comprised of individuals with varying skill sets. Differing educational backgrounds and areas of expertise are needed to advance the mission of law enforcement.

Congressional authority exists under the Spending Clause, Art I §8 of the U.S. Constitution. Every state receives federal funds from the Office of Justice Programs (OJP), Office on Violence Against Women (OVW), and the Community Oriented Policing Services Office (Cops). Unless states elect to refuse federal funding for local law enforcement, BADGE overcomes 10th Amendment challenges.

Opposition to BADGE will claim raising standards may too severely diminish the size of the applicant pool, causing a police shortage. The evidence does not support this allegation. Tens of thousands of qualified Americans with advanced degrees would welcome opportunities to serve their communities, especially considering the competitive salaries and benefit packages of policemen.

Laws like BADGE will only pass when real leaders risk political capital advocating for it. Gone are the days of courageous statesman proposing bills, regardless of potential political fallout. Modern congressman seldom act in the best interest of their constituents, rather, they act to position themselves for reelection.

When considering the current landscape of largely unqualified police recruits, coupled with rising national distrust of police, raising the qualification standards with BADGE will draw populist appeal. At the moment, the only requirement for serving as policeman in the majority of police departments across America, is completing high school, reaching the age of 19, and possessing American citizenship. As a rule, barriers to entry should never be so lax that more people are eligible for a position than are not eligible.

It is unlikely that of the millions thronging to submit applications for police officer, many applicants will be dismissed due to the high school requirement. High school diplomas ought to never serve as the primary criterion for selecting persons tasked with diffusing conflicts where lives are at stake. Furthermore, teenagers, who mostly have undeveloped prefrontal cortex, are not prepared for the emotional stress of quality police work. The prefrontal cortex in the brain is responsible for complex cognitive, emotional, and behavioral functioning.

In an interview with NPR, Sandra Aamodt, neuroscientist and coauthor of Welcome to Your Child’s Brain, explained that, “the stage of development our brains initiate during puberty are only half complete at age 18.” Aamodt later noted that the prefrontal cortex helps inhibit impulses, planning, and organizing behavior to reach goals.

Acknowledging neurological studies of development is key when referencing age restrictions. As a matter of broad scientific unanimity, the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed in men till age 25 and two to three years earlier in women. Thus, imposing an age restriction of 25 on those commissioned to “protect and serve” makes practical sense.

The MIT Young Adult Development Project discovered that, “The brain is not fully mature at 16, when we are allowed to drive, or at 18, when we are allowed to vote, or at 21, when we are allowed to drink, but 25, when we are allowed to rent a car.” Continuing to ignore exhaustive/conclusive neurological studies is inexcusable and adversely affecting communities nationwide. Thrusting individuals into life-threatening situations with partially developed brains is not in society’s best interest.

Admittedly older does not always convert to higher quality. But according to neuroscience it does directly affect ones ability to make higher quality decisions in high-pressure situations. Current crops of youthful, trigger-happy police recruits that exercise a more video game like mentality rather than levelheaded community leader can no longer represent the standard.

Professionals complete extensive studies and earn specialized certificates to demonstrate aptitude. Equally rigorous training and experience ought to be required to serve as policeman. Americans have mistakenly devalued the role of police by allowing exceptionally low barriers to persist despite the nature of police work.

The City of Minneapolis posts a disclaimer following a list of responsibilities on their Police Recruit Homepage, which reads, “[We] reserve the right to limit the number of candidates in the exam process based on a review of application and supplemental application.” Though valid, Minneapolis’ disclaimer would enhance effectiveness by simply limiting acceptable applications according to raised minimum requirements. This eliminates any potential for arbitrary or capricious denials of hiring and simultaneously improves the candidate pool.

To be clear, a bachelor’s degree does not open previously hidden pathways to discovery. Degrees do not automatically translate into superior communication ability, nor do they confer special propensity for problem solving. However, earning a bachelor’s degree is a key marker for distinguishing individual levels of achievement necessary to form selective pools of highly qualified candidates.

Contrary to fantastical television dramas, police work seldom culminates in shootouts at the O.K. Corral. It is mostly laden with paperwork and investigation. Police paperwork is often available for public consumption. Thus, a regard for specificity and patience assists the production and efficiency of that paperwork.

Especially with law enforcement, barriers to entry must serve a cognizable function – that function is to restrict persons from holding positions they are unqualified for. Teenagers lacking professional experience are typically not prepared to manage crisis. Police departments that not only grant access but place young people in high-risk situations are setting them up for dangerous failures that affect everyone.

Some police departments recognize the fundamental need for highly qualified police, namely, Boise, Idaho, Houston, Texas, Memphis, Tennessee, and Colorado Springs, Colorado. These police departments require applicants reach age 21 by the hire date and have accumulated sufficient academic credit to complete 75% of a bachelor’s degree. Conversely, departments like, Detroit, Michigan, Boston, Massachusetts (nation’s oldest department), Seattle, Washington, and Miami, Florida all accept teenage applicants with only a high school diploma.

Anyone concerned or disgusted by the steadily rising trend of police brutality and instances of excessive force will appreciate and support the BADGE qualification increases. All others will continue to defend the status quo blindly accepting poor policing.

Perhaps, hiring more qualified applicants will minimize the risk to departments and society at large. For heightening minimum standards maintains professional integrity and minimizes risk. There is not much at stake if the status quo remains, just life and the preservation thereof.