By Dan Campana
Oak Lawn Police Officer Matthew Harland got out of the Marines and ended up in law enforcement by accident. Well, sort of.
Harland, fresh off his four years in the Corp, found himself in a traffic accident that led him to have a key conversation which went a long way toward deciding his career path.
“Getting into law enforcement happened pretty quick for me,” Harland explained. “Shortly after getting out of the Marines, I was involved in a vehicle accident. I got to talking with the officers that came out. I was starting college soon after, so I decided I’d give criminal justice a try.”
Like many people in local law enforcement, Harland started with an associate’s degree, which he earned at Moraine Valley, and went about testing for local departments. He finished his studies in about a year-and-a-half, and had Oak Lawn and a couple other communities calling him about potential jobs.
What happened next for Harland also fits a common theme when it comes to police officers and completing their education. Harland was hired by Oak Lawn about four years ago and, after getting through the academy and field training, he went to Saint Xavier University to finish his undergraduate work.
In today’s law enforcement world, one that many see as growing more and more professionalized, an officer’s schooling has taken on greater importance. The history of the law enforcement-academic connection goes back years, but the emphasis on higher-minimum requirements is something some aren’t dismissing as a passing fad.
“ISP won’t even look at you with an Associate’s (degree),” Richard Wright, Justice Studies program coordinator for Rasmussen College, offered.
What is clear is that law enforcement education has a broad appeal – from the undergraduate, traditional student to officers going back to school like Harland, to the more veteran group looking at advance degrees in order to move up the ranks or in preparation for their next career.
“So many officers have so much experience and education, I need to continue my education to remain competitive and study some things that might set my education apart from everyone else,” Harland explained. “Sooner or later, I will have to get a Master’s degree just to remain on par with some of my fellow patrolmen.
“It’s almost comical at some points to have someone yelling at you about how we’re just dumb cops…meanwhile they’re surrounded by officers with military experience, associate’s degrees, bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees,” he said.
Education always important
Calvin Edwards, head of the criminal justice program at Lewis University, frames the topic in a couple of ways. First, there is no downside to police officers facing a higher bar, or raising the bar themselves, when it comes to their educational background.
“You’ve got to have an education,” he said. “It all opens you up to so many more possibilities and makes you so much more employable.”
Edwards also said the idea isn’t necessarily a new one in the world of policing.
“A lot of the police departments want people with college degrees – that’s not unusual – and nothing unprecedented,” according to Edwards.
Edwards explained that many criminal justice programs were born out of a 1960s commission focused on modernizing police forces. The commission established the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, which, in turn, distributed “a great deal” of grant money into universities to educate police officers.
“CJ programs got big very fast. Police departments were educating their workforce to get bachelor’s degrees through grant money,” Edwards said. “The thinking was, the more educated the workforce, the less problems (departments were) going to have. The more enlightened they are, the more than likely they are not to cause problems.”
That line of reasoning seems to have remained consistent in today’s environment. Even as more officers are seeking to deepen their academic base as educational expectations increase, the image of law enforcements has taken its hits in recent years. Academic leaders suggest, as Edwards noted about the movement 50 years ago, that officers taking classes in this era are adapting to what’s needed to better serve the community.
Critical thinking, interpersonal communication and sensitivity are the key skills helping shape officers that do the job in ways that de-escalate situations and limit the risk of turning a common occurrence into national headlines, Wright offered.
“One of the reasons for that is because law enforcement is under constant attack,” he continued, suggesting increased professionalism is a way to combat the scrutiny on, and belligerence toward, police in recent years. “You’ve got to be a psychologist, a social worker – you’ve got to be all these things now as a police officer.”
Although the importance of education has increased, educators have noticed some roll back in the number of those setting out to joining the law enforcement ranks.
“People are thinking it’s open season on police and that people don’t have our back,” National Louis University Criminal Justice Program Director Richard Schak said, adding that such ebbs and flows in support for law enforcement are part of the “cycle.”
Wayne Johnson, an associate professor and law enforcement program coordinator at Harper College, agrees to a certain extent about how perceived negativity toward police could sway decision making.
“It might deter (students) from getting into law enforcement,” he said.
However, that hasn’t stifled the types of courses available or undermined the quality of those who are teaching courses for students at all levels. In fact, the convenience and style of local offerings is part of the shift. Two-year through high-end degrees, as well as certification programs, are physically nearby and, thanks to technology, available online, to suit the needs of students with various personal and professional backgrounds.
Programs aplenty, yet diverse in offerings
Johnson touts Harper as having a “big, robust program” with 30 courses per semester and two dozen adjunct professors who carry, as he does, real-world experience.
“You need people who worked in the field,” he emphasizes.
Harper’s program emphasizes hands-on opportunities – such as the large-scale live practical exercise held this past May that blended police, forensic and fire students with professionals to handle a multi-layered investigative scenario – with internship opportunities that, for some students, have clinched their interest in law enforcement.
Johnson is a proponent of students completing the Associate’s degree to “show commitment to the field” en route to picking up that first job. His goal is continue the Harper program’s growth, through partnerships, and to offer bachelor’s and master’s tracks in a convenient location for Harper’s core geographic region. In 2016, Palatine-based Harper will team with Governors State University at a nearby satellite campus to offer a two-year bachelor program.
“Many, many of our students are working full-time or part-time, and they don’t have the time to travel to get that bachelor’s,” he added.
Schak spent three decades with the Chicago Police Department, including many years as a homicide detective. Still, during his 40s, he decided to take some classes to learn some new tricks. That evolved into eventually earning a Master’s and teaching graduate-level courses. Schak doesn’t mention that turn of events to brag, but to point out the value of continued professional growth.
NLU’s three-year-old bachelor’s program has a mix of traditional and non-traditional students, though everyone seems to benefit from what Schak calls “experiential learning” led by “the right people.”
“We’re trying to turn out criminal justice professionals,” he adds. “We want them to exercise those skills that are above the shoulders.”
NLU attracts mostly adult students with diverse backgrounds, and has a slightly greater portion of its enrollment focused on criminal justice careers, such as private or homeland security, that aren’t policing.
“You get a lot of people who want to get into other areas,” Schak said. “They all want to do something to give back to the community.”
Wright said Rasmussen’s accelerated bachelor’s completion program helps bolster opportunities for cops already on the job who might be ready for the next level. He referenced a 10-year Cook County sheriff’s deputy who went the accelerated route – which takes about a year – in order to test to become a sergeant. Wright points out the benefits of having active officers involved in the learning scenario.
“They’re able to take the actual work experience and apply it to the (class) exercise,” he explained.
Of course, what students do with their education in their careers is the ultimate takeaway.
Harland teaches Oak Lawn’s anti-gang program and coordinates the department’s cadet program.
His education prepared him for both roles, and he’s not done yet. Harland said he’s back at Moraine Valley to work on a homeland security certification and to take his fourth Arabic language course.
“Education is certainly becoming more prevalent. When I was hired, I had four years of military service, an A.S. and an A.A.S, and I was essentially behind the ball,” Harland, 28, said. “Now, it’s not uncommon to be working where nearly every patrolman on the street for the night has a bachelor’s degree or higher.”
The final leg, in Edwards’ view, in all this is the cops looking at their futures in and out of the departments where they serve.
“We have a lot of police officers who are actually working toward master’s degrees because they want to know more about leadership and they know they have to understand personnel, labor relations and budget processes,” he said. “There is a relationship between the level of education and subsequent promotion.”
As for those who might be transitioning out of day-to-day police work, Edwards knows education is still a focal point.
“I would say that anybody, especially in law enforcement where you can retire early, should have a plan for your post-law enforcement career. Education is going to be key to your success post-law enforcement,” Edwards added.