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

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

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

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

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

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

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 degree.

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

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

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 factor.

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

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 university.  

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

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

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
"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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Copyright © 2021  Barry M. Baker  
Becoming a Police Officer
An Insider's Guide to a Career
in Law Enforcement
There are Five
Indispensable Truths
for a Successful Police
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