Many boys dream of becoming either an astronaut or a cop when they were growing up. While becoming an astronaut is very unlikely for most—according to the USAF there have only been 543 people who have been to space—the chances are much better for becoming a police officer. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are about 780,000 police officers in the US.
Educational Requirements: Do You Need a College Degree to be a Cop?
In 1966, the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice recommended that the entire nation should require applicants for police departments to be college graduates. That never happened due to two reasons. One reason is that some people thought it may hurt recruitment. The other reason was that it may hurt recruitment among minorities.
Currently, the vast majority of police departments require only a high school diploma or its equivalent such as a GED. As of 2003, only 9% of all departments in the country require at least a 2-year course. Some, like Chicago and New York, need applicants to either have 60 college credits with a 2.0 G.P.A. from an accredited college or university under their belts, or have served 2 years of full-time active military service with an honorable discharge and a high school diploma or GED.
And only 1% of police departments in the country require a 4-year degree. The Arlington Police Department, for example, has required candidates to have at least a bachelor’s degree since 1999. This state of affairs is in stark contrast with the acceptance standards for federal law enforcement agencies, most of which require a bachelor’s degree.
But in reality, candidates should have at least some college credit hours. Most police departments have more applicants than there are open positions, and the competition can be fierce. The Oklahoma City Police Department is an example of this. They want applicants to have at least a high school diploma or GED certificate. But they also explicitly state that they prefer applicants with either a military back ground or 60 or more college credit hours. And even when you do get in with just a high school diploma, many police departments will prefer or even require a college degree for a higher position such as a police detective.
What Degree Do You Need to Become a Police Officer?
What you get your degree in matters a lot. A degree in art history may not be as impressive as getting a more relevant degree. What degree do you need to be a police officer? In most cases, police departments look for law enforcement degrees such as a Criminal Justice Degree.
During the course of your study, you will also be asked to specialize. Your choices here may include Law Enforcement, which for obvious reasons is the most relevant and most preferred by police departments. Other options are Judiciary, Corrections, Forensic Science, Private Security, Homeland Security, and Juvenile Justice.
Schools to Go To: What Is the Best College for Criminal Justice?
One school of thought contends that the overall quality of the schools is crucial. For example, University of Pennsylvania is in the Ivy League, and it offers an undergraduate degree in Criminology. But many experts consider the following as excellent schools to get a Criminal Justice degree:
- City University of New York (CUNY) John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The degrees in criminal justice they offer include areas of concentration in Correctional Studies, Criminology, Fire Science, International Criminal Justice, Philosophy, Police Studies, and Criminal Justice Management. The school is extremely highly regarded not just in the country but in the world, which is why it has a lot of students from overseas. It even has faculty members with Pulitzer Prizes.
- George Washington University. Many of its faculty members are actively part of the federal justice system, federal law enforcement agencies, or community organizations. You can get a general criminal justice degree with a particular specialization or you can obtain a forensic sciences degree.
- University of California, Irvine. Faculty members here are held in high esteem, as they have held august positions in government and law enforcement organizations. The school permits its students to study two distinct areas of specialization: law and society, and criminology. The school also enables its students to get internship positions in police departments, juvenile centers, law firms, and the public defender’s office.
- American University. The faculty here is distinguished as well, but what sets this school apart is that it offers a huge amount of international experience. They offer students the opportunity to study overseas with other university students taking the same kind of courses.
- California State University, Long Beach. This highly regarded school emphasizes an interdisciplinary approach towards gaining a better understanding of criminal justice. They teach students to employ scientific and philosophical methods, combined with critical reasoning.
What Can You Do with a Criminal Justice Degree?
The obvious answer here is that you stand a much better chance of being a cop than one who has a degree that is unrelated to law enforcement. But that is not your only option.
- You can be a correctional officer and work in prisons to help look over convicted criminals. You can also be a parole or probation officer who monitors parolees released from prison to make sure that they comply with their probation requirements.
- You can be a state trooper who makes sure that federal and state vehicle laws are obeyed. You also work with state and local cops to search and capture wanted (or escaped) criminals, and to help detect indications of criminal activity.
- You can also work in forensics. You can then help gather physical evidence and analyze them to reconstruct the crime so that the criminal can be identified.
- You can be a private investigator or work in a private security firm
So what can you do with a degree in criminal justice? You can be a cop, or you can—in one way or another—help cops fight crime.