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Study: Educated Cops Less Likely To Use Force

By Astrid Galvan
Copyright © 2010 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer

          It took about 15 years for Albuquerque Public Safety Director Darren White to get his college degree, but he doesn't think he would be where he is today without it.
        "I always wanted my degree. I think for the most part I wanted to go into upper management at some point in my life, and I knew that would better prepare me for the challenges," White said.
        As more college-educated people join law enforcement, researchers are examining the effects of higher education in policing. One study found that officers with four-year college degrees are significantly less likely to use force than officers with less education.
        "The Effect of Higher Education on Police Behavior," funded by the National Institute of Justice and conducted by Michigan State University, found that officers with degrees are about 12 percent less likely to use force than officers with a high school education or less.
        The researchers in the study define use of force "as acts that threaten or inflict physical harm on citizens."
        A degree is not required to join the Albuquerque Police Department. Only about 1 percent of police departments around the country require college degrees, although that number is growing, according to the study.
        About 27 percent of the approximately 1,100 APD officers have college degrees, according data provided by the city.
        Of those, 269 have bachelor's degrees, 27 have a master's and two have doctorate degrees.
        Public safety spokesman T.J. Wilham said the department offers incentive pay for officers with post-secondary education, which is the only way to gauge how many have degrees or some college credit. He added that many officers get their degrees while on the force, like White did.
        Use of force has been a contentious topic for APD this year. Officers have shot 14 people so far, killing nine of them. There were six officer-involved shootings last year, five in 2008 and 11 in 2007.
        Most of the cases involved an assault on the officer.
        Still, there have been critics who have questioned APD's use of force. In October, about 75 people protested the shootings outside department headquarters.
        Researchers have long argued that officers with a higher education tend to hold beliefs that are "less authoritarian" and less punitive, according to the study. Having a degree could also help make officers better at critical thinking and more fluent in test-taking, which is required to make rank, White said.
        The study funded by NIJ took a close look at whether higher education has any effect on three key decision-making points: arrests, searches and use of force. Using observational data gathered from two cities — one similar in size to Albuquerque — researchers found education has no effect on the probability of an officer making an arrest or of conducting a search in an encounter with a suspect. A college education does, however, significantly decrease the chance of an officer using force.
        According to data from the city, only about 22 percent of the officers involved in shootings since 2004 have college degrees.
        White, who had not read the study when interviewed by the Journal, said that while officers with college degrees are valuable to APD, it's life experience that matters most when hiring new officers.

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