You also have to come to understand the nature of
police work and police departments.  The police
officer, described as the uniformed officer
performing his or her duties in the capacity of a
patrol officer, is without any doubt the backbone of
a police department.  There are exceptions.  If you
become a member of a police department that has
only ten (10) sworn members, you might find
yourself only one of two members designated as an
officer.  The rest of the members could consist of
three sergeants; two lieutenants; one captain; one
major, and the police chief.

Now… the organizational rank structure
I’ve just described is absurd if any importance is to
be attached to the actual functions of the members
in this ten member police department.  In fact, in
this department, the sergeants, the lieutenants,
and the captain are all probably performing the
duties normally associated to those simply
designated as officers.  To give rank any real
definition in this department, it would better
function organizationally with the police chief, two
sergeants, and seven police officers.

You should realize that top heavy organizational
structures exist everywhere especially in
governmental organizations.  In police departments,
a lot of people are looking to get ahead, and getting
ahead means attaining higher rank.

Promotions and Education

You might think that your bachelor’s degree will aid
you in obtaining promotions.  Again, the short
answer is, yes.  But, then you have to ask the
question, to what degree will my bachelor’s degree
help me?

What would you think are the most important
factors affecting your ability to attain higher rank
within a police department?  Would you be
surprised to learn that out of three factors, your
level of education will place last?

Factors 1 and 2:  Personal relationships and political
connections are the first two most important
factors affecting your promotion goals as well as
preferred assignments outside the basic duties of a
police officer.

These two factors are interchangeable in importance
depending upon the particular circumstance.  For
example, you don’t have a degree, but you’ve
placed near the top of your department’s promotion
list for sergeant.  There are ten sergeant vacancies,
and you’re number 5 on the list.  However, when
your police chief fills those vacancies, you’re not
among those promoted to sergeant.

When it comes to promotions in police
departments, all are corrupt.  It’s never a question
if the promotion process is corrupt; the only
question will always be to what extent the process
is corrupted.  If a police chief has the ability to
circumvent a competitive promotion process in favor
of personal relationships or political connections,
that’s usually what’s going to happen.  Now, in this
case, a Bachelor’s degree may well save you from
being the one excluded in this scenario if there is
another person setting within those top 10
positions who does not have a Bachelor’s degree.

Specialized Assignments and Education

You’ve been a patrol officer for ten years, and your
goal has always been to become a homicide
detective.  You work in a large police department,
and your experience as a patrol officer in a high
crime environment has provided you numerous
interactions with your department’s homicide unit.  
Beyond that, you have fostered personal
relationships with detectives and supervisors in the
unit.  What’s really important is that during the ten
years as a patrol officer, you earned a Bachelor’s
degree in criminal justice from a local university.

A vacancy within the homicide unit occurs, and you
feel this is the opportunity you’ve been awaiting.  All
the feed back from members of the homicide unit
give you every reason to believe that you are the
front runner for the open detective’s position.  But,
it turns out that you’ve got some competition.  
Your competition is an officer with only five years on
the department.  The officer spent barely one year
as a patrol officer before moving around in a
number of specialized assignments.  His current
assignment for the last two years has been with the
Mayor’s security detail as the Mayor’s primary
chauffeur.  But… you have a bachelor’s degree and
the Mayor’s chauffeur does not have a degree.

Realistically, ask yourself this question.  Is there
really any doubt in your mind who will get that
homicide detective’s position.

Here’s how it all comes down.  You should make
every effort to obtain a Bachelor’s degree.  As to
how much that degree will benefit you will always be
debatable. What is not debatable is that not having
the degree will never be of any benefit whatsoever.
First and foremost, keep this in mind… the
Bachelor’s degree has become the New High
School Diploma.

So…you want to become a police officer, and you’re
wondering what level of education you should have
or attain in pursuit of this goal.  The first thing you
have to consider is where you are right now, and
there are questions you have to ask yourself in
relation to that fact:

1.  Are you a new high school graduate?  

In this case, you’ve got some time to prepare for
your police career that, for most police departments
begin at the age of 21.  There are police
departments that have police cadet programs where
you can become employed at age 18 working in
administrative positions; until, you enter the police
academy when you turn 21.  

This is a really good career path if you’re absolutely
certain you want a police career, and your police
department has a good pay and benefits package
that is enhanced by the number of years you
serve.  In this scenario, you’ll probably have tuition
assistance available to you which will greatly
decrease the cost of your pursuit of a bachelor’s

2.  Are you a high school graduate pushing 30, or
more, with no or some college?

This scenario fits a lot of people.  Early in my career,
and that’s been some time ago, even then a limited
number of police departments across the country
required entry level police officer applicants to have
a Bachelor’s degree.  Today, as then, you’ll find that
police departments requiring a bachelor’s degree
serve comparatively wealthy jurisdictions.  Many, if
not most, of those police departments have had to
alter that requirement simply because it vastly
decreases the hiring pool.  

If you’re an older applicant with this limited
educational background, there are advantages and
disadvantages.  One advantage is that you’ve got
more life experience than the younger applicant.  
Your background is more extensive, and the
background investigation has more to examine to
evaluate your qualifications and fitness to become a
police officer.  One disadvantage is that you’re
getting off to a later start.  If you decide at some
point that police work is not for you, it’s doubtful
that the years you spend as a police officer will
benefit you, from an educational perspective, in
your further pursuits.

If you become a police officer and at some point
you’re unsure that the police career is for you, you
should at least take advantage of tuition assistance
programs to get that bachelor’s degree, or at least
get closer to the degree, before you leave your
police career.   

3.  Are you a new college graduate?

Congratulations!  Your Bachelor’s degree will
definitely put you at the top of the hiring list in any
police department in the country.  There is one
caveat.  The degree will likely ensure that you’ll be
hired; unless, you did something stupid during your
time in college like getting arrested for drunk
driving.  From the time you begin considering a
police career, you must remember that, as
important as the degree can be, it is still only one

4.  Does it matter what kind of
Bachelor’s degree major I have for a police

The short answer is, not really.  While the obvious
assumption would be that a degree in criminal
justice would be the obvious answer, the reality is
that a degree is a degree.  Like the high school
diploma used to be the required standard, the
bachelor degree is constantly declining to that
standard no matter in what area of study the
degree concentrates.  There are exceptions, of
course.  If you’re a graduate from MIT, your degree
has far more earning potential than if you obtained
a liberal arts degree from even a top tier university.  
Then again, if you’re an MIT graduate, it’s highly
unlikely that you’d be considering a police career.

As a police sergeant, I supervised a new police
officer who had earned his degree in political science
from one of the nation’s top tier universities.  He
went on to rapidly climb the civil service promotion
ladder to the top rank of lieutenant.  While he was a
lieutenant, he had the opportunity to earn a
masters degree in criminal justice, at the expense of
the police department, from that same top tier

He then went on to be appointed to the command
staff rank of major.  The position he held as a
major required his self learned skills in computer
science and information technology.  He was a very
smart guy, and he was perfectly capable of a
command rank position anywhere in the
department.  However, he had no real political
connections which are absolutely essential in
achieving any appointed position in any police
department.  This was one of the rare instances
where one’s real qualifications trumped the politics
simply because he was unquestionably the most
qualified person for the position.

After his successful twenty year police career, he
retired at the ripe old age of 42.  Today, it isn’t a
question of whether he can find a job in information
technology, it’s simply a question of which job he
wants to accept.  There’s no question that his
formal educational background looks good on a
resume.  But, in his case, that’s just a bonus.  The
education that he acquired through experience and
self acquired knowledge has him set for life.  

Intellectual Prejudice

If you’re not already aware, prejudice is all around
you.  Some forms of prejudice are perfectly
acceptable while others are not.  Today, we use the
term politically correct to describe the acceptable
forms of prejudice.  Among the current acceptable
prejudices is one which has been around forever
and it will continue to exist as long as human beings
exist.  The popularity and extent of intellectual
prejudice will be determined upon the environment
in which it is practiced.

When I joined the Baltimore Police Department in
1971, I entered a police department that had
undergone a major reorganization beginning in
1966.  It had become one of the most sophisticated
police departments in the country at every level of
the organization.  Ironically, the vast modernization
was accomplished in a police department where the
vast majority of police officers had little or no formal
education beyond high school.  This lack of college
education existed among command staff members
as well.  I use the word ‘ironically’ because today,
intellectual prejudice would dictate that what was
accomplished back then really couldn’t happen.

Along with the reorganization was an effort by the
Baltimore Police Commissioner to hire new officers
with bachelor degrees and encourage current
officers to continue their formal education.  The
Commissioner established the Police Agent
Program.  At the time, a police officer reached his
top salary level after five (5) years of service.  
However, a newly hired police officer who possessed
a bachelor’s degree would be designated as a police
agent versus police officer after only one year of
service.  Along with the police agent title came a pay
increase of five-hundred dollars above that of a top
paid police officer.  Keep in mind that in the early
1970’s five-hundred dollars was a significant sum of
money not to mention the agent’s overall salary
increase after only one year.

You can probably imagine the intellectual prejudice
that police agents endured.  It’s not as bad as it
sounds.  While the police agent did not receive any
additional authority and performed the same duties
as other police officers, the agent definitely had the
edge when it came to promotions and
assignments.  The worst intellectual prejudice an
agent might suffer is when the agent did something
stupid.  The other, less educated, police officers
might say something like, “Well, what do you
expect.  He’s an Agent.”

Back then, the intellectual prejudice was humorous
as well.  A friend of mine achieved agent status, and
he was justifiably proud of his accomplishment.  In
his general interaction with the public, he would
refer to himself as Agent Jones versus Officer Jones
– Jones is an alias for which the reason will become

One afternoon, a woman came to the district police
station and approached the desk sergeant.  Agent
Jones had previously investigated a complaint for
the woman, and she came to the station to provide
Agent Jones with additional information regarding
the complaint.  The desk was manned by the desk
sergeant and a police officer.  Also present were
several other police officers who were finishing their
paperwork from an arrest.

The desk sergeant politely greeted the woman
asking what he could do to help her.  The woman
responded by saying,  “I’d like to speak with Secret
Agent Jones.”

I can’t image how that poor woman must have
interpreted the smiles that crossed the faces of the
sergeant and every officer around her when she
uttered her request.  The desk sergeant didn't miss
a beat as he picked up the microphone for the
station house intercom and spoke, “There’s a lady
at the desk wishing to speak with Secret Agent
Jones.  If Secret Agent Jones is in the station,
would Secret Agent Jones please report to the

Agent Jones was not in the station, but the
woman’s information was taken for a follow-up
report.  Of course, it didn’t take long for Agent
Jones to become aware of the woman’s visit since
good jokes move through a police department
almost as fast as bad rumors.  As you might
expect, Agent Jones went back to using Officer
Jones when interacting with the public.
Not So Benign

While the past intellectual prejudice toward college
graduates was benign, the intellectual prejudice
you’ll experience today as a mere high school
graduate is not so benign.  As you go through the
hiring process to become a police officer, you might
view the process as difficult.  However, you’ll soon
learn that getting hired is much easier than
advancing further within your police department in
respect to promotions and specialized assignments.

You might ask why you can be hired as a police
officer with only a high school diploma and then
endure intellectual prejudice beyond that point?  
Here’s the answer.  As a police officer, you’ll occupy
the lowest rank within the organization.  You’ll have
exactly the same powers and authority under the
law as the highest ranking member of the
department, but within the organization you’ll be at
the bottom.
"While the obvious assumption would be that a
degree in criminal justice would be the obvious
answer, the reality is that a degree is a
degree." ~ Barry M. Baker
and Police

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Becoming a Police Officer
An Insider's Guide to a Career
in Law Enforcement