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New Qualifications to Produce Better Police

JURIST Guest Columnist Cliff H. Mason II, Valparaiso University School of Law, Class of 2016, examines police procedure in the wake of several high profile police-involved deaths and discusses new qualifications aimed at raising the standards for police recruits...

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 several times in Fort Worth, TX. The shooter was a rookie police officer responding to a burglary call. Tragically, the call was for a different house and the inexperienced officer's mistake deprived Waller's family a chance to say good-bye. Young, nervous and often times undereducated police officers are involved in shootings like this too often. Requiring more education and experience may help rid the impulsive deficiencies of youthful police officers. 

Grade school teachers must earn a bachelor's degree and meet instructional standards, including pedagogy [PDF], to acquire a teacher's certificate in most states. These educators receive years of academic study culminating in 5-10 months observing an established teacher before becoming eligible to direct their own class. 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 and electricians complete four to five years of apprenticeship learning under veterans in the field to earn their licenses in most states. This list of professions requiring specialized 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.

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

Along these lines, Congress should enact legislation adopting minimum standards for qualification to serve as police officer in the US, by passing a "B.A.D.G.E." law recognizing the "Balance of Age and a Degree in General Education" necessary to properly police a community. Specifically: 1) instituting an age restriction of 25 years by the date of hire; and 2) requiring 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). No specific area of undergraduate concentration should 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.

Congress may set such standards using the spending power, Art. I §8 of the US Constitution. Every state receives federal funds from the Office of Justice ProgramsOffice on Violence Against Women and the Community Oriented Policing Services Office. Unless states refuse this federal funding, BADGE overcomes Tenth Amendment challenges.

Opposition to BADGE will claim raising standards may diminish the size of the applicant pool, causing a police shortage, however 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 police officers. Laws like BADGE will only pass if leaders are willing to risk political capital advocating for it.

At the moment, the minimum recruitment age for serving in the majority of America's police departments ranges from 18 to 21. Recruits must also have at least completed high school and possess American citizenship. Barriers to entry should never be so lax that more people are eligible for a position than not eligible. Considering the rising national distrust of police and the current lack of qualifications needed to become a police recruit, raising the qualification standards with BADGE will draw populist appeal.

Of the millions thronging to submit applications to become a police officer, it is unlikely that many will be dismissed due to the high school requirement. High school diplomas should never serve as the primary criterion for selecting persons tasked with diffusing conflicts where lives are at stake. Furthermore, the brain's prefrontal cortex is responsible for complex cognitive, emotional and behavioral functioning and is still developing in a teenager. They cannot be prepared for the emotional stress of quality police work.

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 to plan and organize behavior to reach goals while inhibiting impulses. Acknowledging neurological development studies is key when referencing age restrictions. As a matter of broad scientific consensus, 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 comprehensive neurological studies is inexcusable and adversely affects communities nationwide. Thrusting individuals into life-threatening situations whose cognitive abilities are still maturing is not in society's best interest. Admittedly, older does not always make for higher quality applicants, but neuroscience shows it does directly affect ones ability to make higher quality decisions in high-pressure situations. Current crops of youthful, nervous police recruits who don't yet have the maturity to be levelheaded community leaders cannot continue to represent the standard.

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, this disclaimer could effectively be enhanced by limiting acceptable applications via raised minimum requirements. This eliminates any potentially arbitrary or capricious hiring denials and simultaneously improves the candidate pool.

To be clear, a bachelor's degree does not open previously hidden pathways to hiring. Degrees do not automatically translate into superior communication ability or confer special propensity for problem solving. However, earning a bachelor's degree is a key marker for setting the individual levels of achievement necessary to form a selective pool 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 and a regard for specificity and patience assists in its production and efficiency

Especially with law enforcement, barriers to entry must serve a cognizable function—to restrict persons from holding positions they are unqualified for. Teenagers lacking professional experience are typically not prepared to manage a crisis. Police departments that place young people in dangerous situations are putting those young people at risk for a failure that irrevocably affects everyone involved.

Some police departments recognize the fundamental need for highly qualified police, namely, Boise, ID, Houston, TX, Memphis, TN and Colorado Springs, CO. 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, MI, Boston, MA (the nation's oldest department), Seattle, WA and Miami, FL 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 and blindly accept poor policing. Perhaps, hiring more qualified applicants will minimize the risk to departments and society at large, as heightening minimum standards maintains professional integrity and minimizes risk. Life and the preservation thereof is at stake if the current status quo remains.

Cliff H. Mason II is currently a student at Valparaiso University School of Law where he serves as Secretary on the Student Bar Association Executive Board.

Suggested citation:Cliff H. Mason II, New Qualifications to Produce Better Police, JURIST - Student Commentary, December 12, 2014, http://jurist.org/student/2014/12/cliff-mason-police-qualifications.php.

This article was prepared for publication by Michael Finley, an Associate Editor for JURIST Commentary. Please direct any questions or comments to him at commentary@jurist.org


Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.
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Student Commentary publishes accounts of law students' first-hand experience with law and law-related events. Student Commentary contributors come from all over the world, sharing personal stories on legal matters ranging from the G-20 summit protests in the US to the plight of migrant workers in Taiwan.

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