Many college students think of their criminal justice degree as a means to obtain police employment. Alternatively, if they are already on the job, they think in terms of how the job will enhance their promotional opportunities. What most don’t think about is how classroom instruction relates directly to doing the job. In other words, yes, a criminal justice degree will make you a more prepared candidate during the police officer selection process, but it will also make you a better police officer. Here are three ways the classroom is going to help you on the street.
Every good investigation, undercover operation, and street bust ends with paperwork. Police work involves reams upon reams of paper. Often, the better the arrest, the more complex the arrest report. Just making that good arrest isn’t enough; police work is about documenting what we saw, heard, collected, or did. Good police work is about writing clear, concise, and comprehensive reports that ensure the district attorney will file charges and a jury will convict.
Every undergraduate, as well as graduate, paper you write begins with a thesis. In the police work, the thesis is that a certain suspect committed a certain crime. Just as in college, you have to find research that supports your thesis. On the job, you record, order, and explain evidence that supports your thesis that the suspect committed the crime. All the writing you do in college will prepare you to write good police reports and, thus, make you a better cop.
Cop work is about one thing—talking to people. You will interview victims, informants, suspects, and witnesses. The list of people you are going to be talking to is endless. The people you are going to be talking to come from all walks of life. They are going to be different races and different genders. Some are going to be wealthy and some are going to be hooked on heroin. The best cops can talk and listen to everyone.
All college curriculum provides components that are going to strengthen your ability to listen and speak with a wide variety of people. Coursework on different cultures, or how cultures relate, will help you develop a wider base of listening and understanding skills. These skills will help you better interview a victim, suspect, or witness. Coursework on public speaking or giving presentations will assist you in developing your ability to communicate.
Writing and interviewing will remain critical skills for police officers; however, as we move further into the 21st century, a police officer’s ability to understand and use technology will become essential. We are not talking about the ability to use a word processor, a radio, or search some database—those skills are essential now. Cops must do crime analysis. Police work is moving to become more data driven and much more data predictive. Terms such as “directed patrol” flow directly from research and theories developed in the classroom. As data become more important, so will data analysis. Even the cop on the beat is required to understand what the data about crime on his or her beat means.
The deeper your understanding of how crime analysis theories work, the better your understanding of the tasks your sergeant is going to give you. The better you understand the tasks, the better your performance. Pay attention in your psychology, sociology, and economics courses. Someday, when you are trying to figure out why a robbery suspect is committing crimes on certain days you will wish you had.