Whatever their background, newly appointed officers quickly find themselves part of a fraternity, one whose sole criteria for membership is to wear the badge with honor. But within their organizations, they are also increasingly expected to have better interpersonal skills, acquire better knowledge of the law, and have some degree of technological savvy. While not formally written in their job descriptions, they are also expected to become proficient multi-taskers. More than that, they have to be smart.
"Thirty years ago, it was a 'how tough are you' mentality that ruled," notes one lieutenant with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. "If you could kick ass and take names, we wanted you on our team. Today, we want to know if you know how to write. Because if you can't legally justify what you did or didn't do, then you're no good to us."
A 2003 survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 18 percent of local law enforcement agencies required new officers to have some education beyond high school, nearly double the requirement from a decade before. Increasingly departments require that officers come into the job with two-year or four-year degrees.
To hedge their bets, many existing officers supplement their expertise through higher education, acquiring various degrees and often on the company dime. And they have plenty of choices as to where to study. More than 1,700 institutions across the nation offer degree programs in criminal justice administration and police science, many of them in Web-based programs. In the 2003-2004 academic year, 452,000 students were enrolled in such programs, and many agencies have implemented their own college programs or entered into joint programs with college institutions.
Nationally, such statistics are heartening. But in some urban areas such as Los Angeles County, only 50 percent of students graduate from local high schools. This makes it hard for some agencies to find educationally qualified personnel, particularly at a time when the state of California has some 10,000 law enforcement vacancies alone.
Lt. Mike Parker of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department notes that sometimes some academic catch-up may be in order. "With all the challenges of recruitment and retention, most agencies do not have the luxury of mandating their candidate pools have master's degrees," states Lt. Parker. "However, Sheriff Lee Baca has built a culture within the Sheriff's Department that rewards and encourages higher education."
Toward this end, the LASD has coordinated with several accredited universities in developing degree programs that allow students to be taught on site; other programs are conducted entirely online. This innovative university partnership affords multilateral benefits for all involved: Students are able to acquire a variety of associate's, bachelor's, and master's degrees without lengthy commutes and inflexible schedules. The department attains a better educated demographic within its ranks. And the universities enjoy enrollments they might not have had otherwise.
But an officer's education does not end in the classroom or with the academy. Today's patrol officers are required to attend all manner of training seminars. They are immersed in cultural sensitivity training and gender equity protocol before being sent off for tolerance seminars, verbal judo courses, and tactical exercises. Some even attend investigative courses and training in specialized fields. And on top of all this community policing training has become mandatory for new recruits in more than a third of all local police departments.
How Old is "Old"
With all of these training programs piled atop the conventional aggravations such as street dangers, the judicial system's revolving doors, and family stress it isn't surprising to find many veteran 21st-century officers channeling Tom Petty and screaming: "Let me up! I've had enough!"
"You have to be a doctor, a psychiatrist, a bad guy, and a good guy in one minute," Det. Carl McLaughlin of the New York Police Department told The City Journal.
One cop expressed frustration with the job and people's belief that a cop can just walk away from his or her career. "I love it when I hear people say, 'If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.' "They make it sound like it's easy to just jump ship. But once you've got 10 years, you're invested. What else are you going to do?"
As veteran officers who joined the force at age 21 struggle with job burnout and eye early retirement by age 45, departments also struggle to recruit sufficient men and women to maintain adequate staffing. Nationwide recruitment for the period from 2000 to 2004 fell far below the previous four-year period, and even further below the four-year period before then.
As a result, several departments have relaxed their hiring standards to attract a wider array of individuals. Some agencies have been willing to trade educational experience for military experience. Others overlook past minor drug or gang activity in favor of greater life experience.
One significant change in the ranks of law enforcement is the recruitment of older officers who are starting second and maybe even third careers. Across the country, agencies have relaxed maximum age requirements.
Unlike corporate America, law enforcement and firefighting agencies are exempt from certain laws that prevent discrimination based on age. The Federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), as amended in 1996, allows individual states to enforce maximum age limits for hiring law enforcement recruits.
But not all states or agencies are on board with the notion that an officer's advanced age could hamper his ability to perform the strenuous tasks that are required in law enforcement. New York has a maximum hiring age of 35 years, while California has no maximum age limit at all.
The San Francisco Police Department recently hired a 56-year-old grandfather into its ranks. After working for 36 years for Pacific Gas and Electric, and eight years as a reserve officer, he was eligible to apply for the police department after the department lifted its maximum age requirement.
Similar stories are playing out all across the country.
The ADEA also allows agencies to set mandatory retirement ages within certain guidelines. Which raises the question: When is someone too old to be a cop? The shooting death of a 76-year-old deputy sheriff in Broward County (Fla.), has sparked debates about mandatory age requirements in law enforcement.
Dep. Paul Rein was shot to death with his own gun while he was transporting a prisoner. Although he was reportedly very fit, his murder raises questions about the role of senior citizens working in law enforcement. Several large agencies have officers over the age of 65, but most of them perform duties that are less strenuous and less hazardous than those of younger cops.
Diverse But Unified
So the question remains. Just who wears the badge in 21st-century America?
Statistically, the average cop is likely white, male, with an associate's degree or better, and he is probably on the downhill run toward retirement.
But that description doesn't do justice to what is really happening in our ranks. Men and women of all ancestries, educational backgrounds, and ages are working as officers.
We are everyone and no one individual. The very connotation of the uniform ensures a degree of anonymity for the individual officer, and intrigue and speculation for the public we serve, perhaps, it is as it should be.
As public servants, we exercise authority over the very constituents we serve; a constituency that does not always see us acting in their best interests. Our controversies are played out in clear view of the public eye. Our growth and maturation are charted against society's changing cultural mores.
Beneath the uniform we are as diverse as we are unified. Each and every one of us is a dichotomy: agreeably challenged and disagreeably frustrated. We are laureled, lionized, deified, chastised, castigated, and demoralized—and often for the same thing.
Who we are depends upon how closely you choose to look at us. Like a mural created with hundreds of thousands of mosaic tiles, the ranks of law enforcement officers in this country project an image that is viewed differently by each individual that gazes upon it.
In January 2008, POLICE Magazine launched a year-long article series focusing on the “state of American law enforcement.” If you’d like to read the other chapters, click on the links below.
Chapter 1: The Thinning Blue Line. Law enforcement agencies nationwide are competing for a dwindling population of recruits.
Chapter 3: Teaching to the Test. Does law enforcement training focus too much on qualifying and not enough on skills that can help you win fights?
Chapter 4: A Love-Hate Relationship. Most people only meet an officer when they are arrested, questioned, or cited. That makes it hard for them to like cops.
Chapter 5: Can the Average Cop Thrive in the Age of Specialization? The generalist cop is part of a dying breed, which means many of today's officers will need to excel at a specialty.
Chapter 6: Women Warriors. Female police officers must walk a fine line between fitting in and making their own way in law enforcement.
Chapter 7: Working on the Front Lines. The patrol officer is the backbone of American policing, but a lot of agencies don’t want to admit it.
Chapter 8: SWAT: Breaking the Mold. Agencies nationwide model their tactical teams on LAPD SWAT. So what does it mean if that unit changes its policies to be more politically correct?
Chapter 9: Stopping the Next 9/11. Improvements in intelligence gathering, training, and equipment give you a good chance of preventing the next attack and saving lives if it happens.
Chapter 10: Rules of Engagement. Today’s law enforcement officer is the best trained and best equipped cop in history, so why do policy makers think you have the judgment and intellect of children?
Chapter 11: Gangster Nation. Big city street gangs have taken root in small town America, bringing mayhem to Main Street.
Chapter 12: Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don't. When a cop uses - or doesn't use - a less-lethal weapon in contemporary America, there can be hell to pay.