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Guest Post: Raise, not lower, police hiring standards to restore public trust

Cedric Alexander says better-qualified officers, not just more officers, are the key to improved policing

Cedric L. Alexander, a former police chief in Rochester, N.Y., and DeKalb County, Ga., says raising police hiring standards will improve trust with the community. (CLA/Cedric L. Alexander)

Cedric L. Alexander has spent a career in policing, as chief of the police departments in Rochester, N.Y., and DeKalb County, Ga., as a detective in Miami. He also was a security director of the Department of Homeland Security and deputy commissioner of New York state’s Department of Criminal Justice Services. He speaks frequently about how to improve policing and police-community relations, and here is one idea he has for making police departments better and citizens safer.

By Cedric L. Alexander

At least as early as 1714 in England (according to the Oxford English Dictionary), “peace officer” was a common term for a constable or policeman. It’s not heard all that much today, except on applications for various law enforcement positions. People who want to join a police department often find themselves applying to be “peace officers.”

I like that old-fashioned-sounding term. Whenever we recruit police officers and sheriff’s deputies, we should think seriously about what it means to be a peace officer. Those who apply for the job should ponder the phrase, too.

The legitimacy that transforms a cop into a peace officer is built on “procedural justice,” which is the people’s perception that the police are just in their processes, transparent in their actions and sympathetic to the voices of the people they serve. Without procedural justice, the police have no legitimacy among the people, and there can be no peace.

I understand that. But, having devoted 40 years to law enforcement, having led public safety and police departments, and having been an adviser and consultant to many more, I am convinced that most American police agencies need more than mere reform. They require nothing less than the transformation of America’s police officers into peace officers. Such a project of renewal and redemption must start with how we recruit, train, supervise, and compensate the young men and women we bring into law enforcement.

Today, the crisis in police recruitment continues to deepen. A 2021 national survey revealed that, on average, departments around the country were filling only 93 percent of budgeted officer vacancies. The same survey showed a 44 percent increase in retirements and an 18 percent increase in resignations nationwide. Add to this that U.S. law enforcement pays at best a mediocre wage ($54,972 average nationwide), offers relatively few benefits and is far from being widely respected as a profession.

Philadelphia is typical. The department is down 440 officers, 7 percent short of the personnel budgeted, according to CNN. The head of the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police told the news outlet: “Well, right now it’s not a very desirable job. … I mean just getting people to apply is a monster in itself.” Recently, 600 people responded to an announcement of a recruitment event, 200 showed up, and a scant 26 moved on to preliminary screening, according to the CNN report. Faced with head winds like this, many police agencies are lowering their recruitment standards. Philadelphia, New Orleans and Chicago, for instance, jettisoned their requirements for college credits and settled for a high school diploma or even a GED.

We cannot advance policing unless we advance the education of the rising generation of officers. The 21st century demands better-educated men and women, who have acquired and practiced the skills of critical thinking, possess a high degree of technological competence, have a basic grasp of behavioral psychology, a solid knowledge of laws and their application, and understand both the value and reality of diversity in the American population.

I have come to believe that a two-year associate’s degree or a four-year bachelor’s degree and life experience are not merely desirable but essential for police work. High school is far from sufficient. I suggest two or four years of college with a major in psychology, other social science, or even social work. But any field that inculcates critical thinking would provide invaluable background for officers. They need the mental skills to decide the truth or falsity of a claim or belief. Critical thinking lifts judgment and actions above prejudicial fallacies and biases. This is essential to policing in America’s increasingly diverse communities.

College teaches you how to be a critical thinker,” says former Arlington County, Va., Police Chief Jay Farr. “A big part of the college experience is for you to look at things and to think through them beyond the obvious. I don’t think that the fact that someone went to college or not necessarily makes them better at the ability to be a police officer in the sense of the technical skills of the job. I think it makes them a much better officer in having the ability to be more willing or open to dealing with different cultures, different points of view, different thought process.” In fact, a 2010 Police Quarterly study on the effect of higher education on police behavior concluded that college-educated officers were 40 percent less likely to use force on the job.

I understand that it is counterintuitive to respond to a shortage of willing recruits by making the requirements more demanding. But this is the only way to redeem and renew the profession. In the long run, raising standards will create departments that more of our best and brightest will want to join. This, in turn, will create a generation of peace officers willing to invest themselves in creating the kind of relationship with the communities they serve that will not only better serve them but also will restore to the profession the public trust and esteem that comes with true nobility of purpose.

We must not blame this city or that neighborhood for our having failed to earn from its residents the legitimacy that only they can confer. And we should not even blame the job, hard as the job is. As a familiar saying goes, “People don’t leave bad jobs. They leave bad bosses.” Police executives must accept that in any workplace, culture and values come from the top. To even begin recruiting candidates capable of becoming peace officers, we need police leaders who embrace the concepts of legitimacy and procedural justice. We need leaders who hold constitutional and human rights sacred. We need leaders who see human diversity not just as a reality but as a blessing. A values-based culture begins with values-based leadership and values-based recruitment.

The urgency I feel about recruitment as the only means to redeem and renew policing may make me sound pessimistic. Believe me, I am not. The pressure our police agencies are under today comes not from the failure of democracy but from the high expectations of Americans living in a free society. They have been promised peace born of justice, and they will not settle for less. I, for one, am thankful for that. It gives me hope. “No justice, no peace” is a statement of a powerful truth. Justice is a prerequisite of peace, even as peace is necessary to justice. Our nation, our civilization, our world cannot find peace without justice.