In response to protests calling for police reform and accountability, some U.S. police departments are partnering with colleges and universities to develop anti-bias training for their employees.
For example, in Washington DC, agents take a critical race theory course at the University of the District of Columbia Community College. The idea of teaching officers liberal arts to improve police-community relations and productivity is not new.
As far back as 1967, a federal commission charged with finding solutions to rising crime and police brutality recommended that all police personnel with general enforcement powers should hold a baccalaureate degree.
However, research shows that education has mixed results. While there is evidence that college-educated officers are less likely to use violence, it also shows that they are less satisfied with their jobs than lower-educated colleagues.
As a postdoctoral researcher, I have studied police reform movements of the 1950s and 1960s. I was surprised to learn of the long and complicated relationship between the police and academia.
The story of the School of Criminology at the University of California, Berkeley, in particular, reveals the challenges of developing a true “police science” — a way to improve practices within this profession by involving police in research and education at university level. The potential benefits of such science are unclear, as policing has struggled to find a home in academia.
The following story is constructed from records in Berkeley’s Bancroft Library.
Berkeley police officers
August Vollmer has been described by some scholars as the most influential police reformer in modern history. Vollmer was Chief of the Berkeley Police Department from 1909 to 1932, where he and his protégés improved the lie detector test, developed the world’s first fingerprint system, adopted radio communications and car patrols, and established the nation’s first crime lab.
Of all Vollmer’s projects, the one that was close to his heart was the professional development of the police force through education. To this end, he founded the world’s first police academy in Berkeley in 1908. Defying convention, he also regularly hired students to work on his police force. At the time, academic training was often viewed as a handicap to good police work, as it made officers book-stretch.
Vollmer’s interest in academia was clear: he wanted to develop a team of expert police officers who would be sensitive to the needs of the communities they served. In 1930 he wrote: “Why should not the cream of the crop be perfectly willing to devote their lives to the cause of the service, provided that service is dignified, socialized and professionalized?”
Vollmer and his colleagues teamed up with Berkeley to pursue this vision. In 1916, they began offering summer college courses for police officers. In 1923, they conferred degrees in criminology through the political science department. In 1950, they founded the School of Criminology – the first independent department at Berkeley dedicated to police science. The school required prospective officers to take courses in traditional academic departments — sociology, history, math — in addition to hands-on training in police work — things like fingerprinting and interrogation. Upon completion, they could earn a Bachelor of Arts, a Bachelor of Science, or a Master of Criminology.
The school was run by the police for the police. OW Wilson, the school’s first dean, was a police officer who did not earn a Ph.D. At the time, it was rare, though not unprecedented, for working professionals to head academic departments at Berkeley.
Students came from all over the world to study at the School of Criminology. In the Bancroft archives, I found letters from alumni all the way to the Chinese Ministry of the Interior. Vollmer’s work inspired similar programs in other states, including Indiana, Washington and Michigan. It also advocated offering police courses at the state’s other public higher education systems: California State University and California Community Colleges.
Clark Kerr, former president of the University of California, had serious reservations about training police in Berkeley.
Kerr was one of the architects of the California Higher Education Master Plan, which in 1960 established a system of higher education in the state as it still exists today. That plan called for coordination between different types of public institutions. Vocational training programs—such as those for the police force—would be hosted on Cal State campuses and community colleges. The University of California campuses would be responsible for scholarships and providing the state’s top-performing students with a liberal arts education.
Consistent with this perspective, in 1957 a faculty committee reviewed the School of Criminology and found it “not a good occupation for a student” at Berkeley.
They wrote, “The objectives are too ill-defined to form a true intellectual discipline, the techniques are too disparate and fragmentary, and the perspective is too occupational.”
The committee recommended that the School of Criminology be completely dismantled. By then, however, the school had become far too important to California law enforcement to go down without a fight.
Bancroft’s archives contain dozens of letters from police officers and other officials asking Berkeley trustees to postpone the closure of the school. They include petitions from teachers in police training programs on Cal State campuses. Without Berkeley supplying Cal State programs with police professors and research on police work, they feared their programs would suffer.
As a condition of staying at Berkeley, the school had to be more like a traditional academic department. It should take on doctoral students from social sciences, cut vocational courses and focus on higher education. Several former officers who served on the faculty left the department for more welcoming workplaces. Dean Wilson became Chief of Police in Chicago and was replaced by Joseph Lohman, a sociologist from the University of Chicago who also worked as Cook County Sheriff.
After 1960, the school became a place for sociologists to study crime. Many criminology schools have been outspoken critics of the police. In 1971, criminology professor Tony Platt was arrested by the Berkeley police during a political protest. The relationship between the school and the local law enforcement officers she once trained deteriorated.
In 1972 the school came under fire again.
A review committee reprimanded it for its “current pursuit of academic goals largely detached from a professional orientation”. In other words, she had managed all too well to distance herself from her original assignment of training police officers.
This time, few law enforcement officers came to the defense. Despite protests from student groups, Berkeley’s School of Criminology closed for good in 1976.
Lessons from Berkeley
Berkeley’s School of Criminology was one of the most ambitious police education projects ever undertaken in the US. After the demise, police professors came under attack at other universities and professional associations for a “lack of academic prestige or acceptance”. Under constant threat of closure, starvation or neglect, police science schools reinvented themselves as criminal justice departments. This required an expansion of their focus to the courts and corrections.
As other scholars have pointed out, criminal justice is a poor substitute for police science. Students who study criminal justice do not necessarily plan to become a police officer. The faculty is also not required to have any knowledge of or experience with the police. A recent survey of 2,109 officers from eight metropolitan police departments found that 45 percent of officers had a bachelor’s degree or higher. Only half of them studied criminal law.
Even if these programs are designed exclusively for the police force, their absence from major universities is telling. The vast majority of University of California campuses do not offer degrees in criminal justice.
In 2016, California State University, Sacramento launched the Law Enforcement Candidate Scholars Program, which prepares students of all majors to become police officers through police work workshops and internships in law enforcement agencies. It can provide valuable information on establishing and maintaining police-university partnerships.
As policymakers, educators and police forces consider various police reform strategies – including the ever-popular suggestion that officers should have college degrees – it is important to keep in mind the challenges of integrating this profession into the Ivory Tower. It is unclear whether university education is beneficial to the police, what kind of education is most useful, how it should be delivered or by whom.
Precisely because major research universities are reluctant to adopt robust science from the police force, we don’t have much evidence for what works and what doesn’t. It may be time for educators to ask themselves: What harm is our reluctance to study and train this profession doing to our society?
This article was republished on The Conversation, a non-profit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. The Conversation has a variety of fascinating free newsletters.
It is written by: Nidia Banuelos, University of California, Davis.
Nidia Bañuelos does not work for, consult with, own stock in, or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has not disclosed any relevant affiliations outside of their academic tenure.