Chris Uggen’s Blog: The link between education and police use of force

Frederick Melo at The Usual Suspects comments on the high rates of advanced degrees among police officers in Minnesota. He cites a bit of the criminological research literature on the effects of higher education, but didn’t mention a new paper in Police Quarterly by Jason Rydberg and William Terrill.

I won’t belabor the methods or Project on Policing Neighborhoods data source, but I graphed the main finding above: relative to less-educated officers, those with college experience are significantly less likely to use force in police-citizen encounters.

About 56 percent of interactions with college-educated officers involved force, while about 68 percent of encounters with non-college-educated officers involved force. This relationship holds up (p < .001) in models that adjust for age, experience, suspect characteristics, and the setting of the encounter. In contrast to the use of force, defined here as “acts that threaten or inflect physical harm on citizens,” there appears to be no relationship between education and arrest or search behavior.

Even with a nice set of statistical controls, one could interpret these findings as the result of self-selection processes — that is, there might be something about the type of people who go to college (rather than the college experience itself) that results in less force by officers. Plus, force is difficult to measure and, if I’m interpreting them correctly, these levels look suspiciously high.

Nevertheless, the basic finding has now been replicated across a number of data sets and research settings. Why haven’t we required all officers to hold advanced degrees? The old arguments involve the desirability of recruiting less-educated former military personnel, while the new arguments involve the desirability of recruiting a less-educated but more diverse force. The enduring argument, I suppose, involves costs: if we require all officers to have a college degree, we might have to pay them more.

This post was originally published on Chris Uggen’s Blog.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 04/28/2010 - 09:44 am.

    I suspect self selection does, indeed, have a major roll to play in these figures. Rather than requiring more education, I would rather see potential officers be required to take the “Meyers-Briggs” personality inventory, the “Mythic Heroes Index” inventory or the MMPI so that certain types of personalities, especially those with dysfunctions which make them likely to escalate most situations toward violence, rather than de-escalating situations where that’s possible could be excluded from our law enforcement agencies.

    Those with a deep, psychologically-based need to exert power over others (even to the extent of unjustifiable violence) and to prove they are completely in control of every person and situation, whether that level of control is necessary or justified, are costing cities and counties millions of dollars in payments to innocent citizens who have been the victims of abuse by law enforcement officers.

    Sadly, these situations where abuse has occurred are trumpeted in the media leading the general public to believe that ALL law enforcement officers are prone to violence and the abuse of citizens. Appropriate pre-screening of potential officers would save us all a great deal of money and make our police forces far more effective and respected.

  2. Submitted by Peter Mikkalson on 04/28/2010 - 12:48 pm.

    Steroid abuse may also be a contributing factor, also found correlating between less and more educated members of the force.

  3. Submitted by Gail O'Hare on 04/28/2010 - 03:07 pm.

    I would think heavy doses of psychology and sociology would help them understand human behavior and reduce their own prejudices. Personality typing could help a lot, with counselling, but I’d hate to see those imperfect tools used to cut candidates without other indicators.
    Steroids? Good grief.

Leave a Reply