Pursuing a career in law enforcement can be exciting, rewarding, and often challenging. Individuals working for the police, the court system, in corrections facilities, or even on a private basis put their lives on the line to bring justice to criminals and increase public safety.
Getting a law enforcement job doesn't necessarily require a degree. However, as the desire for educated police officers and other law enforcement officials increases, fewer departments are hiring individuals without one. If you're interested in working in law enforcement, obtaining an education is an excellent start. Here's what you need to know about how to get a law enforcement degree.
What Is a Law Enforcement Degree?
A degree in law enforcement helps prepare individuals for lifelong careers as police and detectives, security officers, corrections officers, crime scene investigators, criminologists, and more. In the past, police departments typically didn't require much beyond a high school diploma before sending students to police academy. Today, many degree programs require 60 credits of college education at minimum for entry-level law enforcement officers. Some departments require at least an associate's or bachelor's degree.
Even in cases where a college degree isn't required, hiring police departments typically favor applicants with a degree from a law enforcement or criminal justice program. Not only does higher education give students a head start on their training, it also demonstrates important qualities needed for law enforcement careers, such as good work ethic, initiative, and critical thinking.
A robust law enforcement program will focus on due process and how the law is applied in various circumstances. This includes but is not limited to chain of evidence, proper search, seizure, and arrest protocol, criminology, and how to use force in an appropriate manner. Individuals pursuing a career in law enforcement may also be required to take basic sociology, history of law, and public relations classes.
Types of Law Enforcement Degree Programs
There are several degree programs available for individuals interested in pursuing a career in law enforcement, including:
Law Enforcement Certificate
Many schools offer a basic law enforcement program, usually online. These certificate programs are typically a year in duration and require the least investment of time and money. Often, students can obtain a law enforcement certificate and transfer those credits to a criminal justice program to continue their education.
At minimum, applicants must have a high school diploma or equivalent, and depending on the school, a drug test and/or background check may be conducted. Students may be ready to go into some law enforcement careers after graduating from a certificate program, however, police academy often follows.
A certificate in law enforcement generally covers some general education courses along with criminal justice electives. This may include introductory classes like sociology, criminology, speech, and psychology, as well as criminal law and procedure, juvenile crime, incarceration and rehabilitation, recidivism, court procedures, and more.
Associate's Degree in Law Enforcement
Students can usually earn an associate's degree in law enforcement with just two years of studying full-time. Some schools allow students to take an accelerated program with summer classes, completing the program in just 18 months, which is an excellent option for students who want to start their careers sooner than they would if they attended a typical four-year college. An associate degree essentially "doubles" the education of a certificate course, covering the same basic elements of criminal justice and corrections while going into more detail on certain topics to better equip graduates for available jobs. Like a law enforcement certificate program, an associate degree prepares graduates for entry-level positions in the criminal justice field. Associate-level education credits may also be applicable to a bachelor degree program for students who want to continue to expand their education.
Topics generally covered by an associate degree in law enforcement include introductory psychology, sociology, policing and corrections, court systems, ethics, criminal procedure, crime scene investigation, and constitutional law. Applicants must have a high school diploma or equivalent.
Bachelor's Degree in Law Enforcement
A bachelor's degree in law enforcement at a four-year college provides the educational framework graduates need to understand the causes of and responses to criminal behavior, procedure and investigation, and the American criminal justice system. A well-rounded bachelor's degree program blends practical exercises with academic theory, allowing students to develop the skills integral to success in the field of law enforcement. Graduates develop important critical thinking, reasoning, logical, and communication skills as they complete the four-year program.
Throughout their education, students build foundational investigative, analytical, managerial, and decision-making expertise as they learn to respond to emergencies, develop critical policies, keep records, and make ethical decisions on the job.
Students will learn about core verticals within law enforcement, including the history of law and legal practices in the U.S., criminal procedure and investigations, criminal psychology and sociology, victimology, and emergency and disaster management. Many schools allow the transference of bachelor-level credits obtained at a four-year college to a master's degree program in law enforcement.
Master’s Degree in Law Enforcement
A master's degree in law enforcement prepares graduates for advanced opportunities within leadership roles and supervisory positions. This allows students to explore a much wider variety of criminal justice careers than an associate or bachelor's degree, and many master's degree programs offer niched courses in homeland security, emergency management and disaster preparedness, cyber intelligence, and criminal corrections.
Master's degree programs typically offer multidisciplinary instruction with classes that review both statistical research protocol and real case studies to establish a well-rounded, critical approach to nearly any situation. Many schools require the completion of internships or capstone projects that put learned skills to the test.
A graduate degree allows individuals to seek positions within higher levels of justice administration and law enforcement. Senior-level positions pay significantly more than those attainable with only a bachelor's degree in law enforcement. Graduates may also choose to go on to earn a doctorate in law enforcement, transferring their masters-level credits to the Ph.D. program.
Ph.D. in Law Enforcement
A doctorate degree in law enforcement is the highest level of education you can obtain, either via an on-campus or online program. To enter a doctorate program for law enforcement, you should have a master's degree in a related field, such as criminal justice or public safety. You'll also need to have completed certain experience requirements, which vary from school to school.
A doctorate program is typically four years in length -- two of study and two of research. Students will examine various key areas of law enforcement with a more detailed lens, such as criminal justice, victimology, criminology, and investigation. At the end of the two-year period of research, students present a thesis and complete a dissertation, after which their law enforcement degree is awarded.
Graduates of doctoral degree programs in the field of criminal justice are well-prepared for leadership positions within the fields of research, academics, and federal law enforcement.
Courses in a Law Enforcement Degree Program
A degree in law enforcement will prepare you for your chosen career by providing you with a robust education on a wide variety of applicable topics. Your education will need to cover the basics in almost every category before you can move on to more individualized courses. You'll attend introductory classes in:
As students progress through their studies, courses become more tailored to the field they're pursuing. Other courses may include education on courtroom tactics, electronics investigations, search and seizure protocol, digital forensics, domestic terrorism, ethics, community relations, interview and interrogation techniques, narcotics investigations, undercover investigation, information management, science in criminal justice, and crisis de-escalation.
What Are the Benefits of Getting an Education in Law Enforcement?
There are numerous benefits to completing a law enforcement program before going into a law enforcement career. Although it’s possible to pursue such a career without a college education, this typically isn’t in your best interest. Here’s what a law enforcement degree can help you do:
Gain Access to More Career Options
Law enforcement professionals with a college degree are typically the employees that get opportunities and promotions that aren't available to individuals without a college-level education. A criminal justice program provides academic credentials and career skills that help applicants stand out from others who may be vying for the same position or promotion. It allows you to select from a wider variety of career paths and enables you to transfer knowledge and skills across a wide range of organizations and industries.
This means that law enforcement college students have more to choose from when applying for jobs after graduation. They're not being forced to settle for a position they are less passionate about or left with few to no options to progress their careers because nothing else is available. College-educated individuals generally enjoy lower unemployment rates than those with only a high school diploma or equivalent and/or on-the-job training.
Earn a Higher Salary
Georgetown University recently conducted a study that discovered the average college graduate earns $1 million more throughout their lifetime than professional individuals without a college education. The Pew Research Center also found that the average annual income gap between college and high school graduates is approximately $17,500. College graduates can expect to enjoy higher pay and lower unemployment rates than non-college graduates.
Simply put, higher-paying jobs typically require more education, skills, and expertise. A beat cop usually does not need the same level of investigative skills as a lead detective and therefore doesn't make the same salary. A high-level position such as a police chief or federal agent generally requires even greater education and expertise to manage the demands of the job, translating into higher pay. Exact salaries for law enforcement college graduates depend largely on the chosen industry, the size of the organization, and its location.
Learn How to Manage Crisis Scenarios
Higher education has never been more important for law enforcement professionals than it is now. Your degree will help you gain critical knowledge of human psychology and sociology and the skills to defuse a crisis. Law enforcement professionals are often responsible for protecting the lives of others as well as their own, and doing so in emotionally or violently charged situations requires comprehensive training.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police reports that law enforcement officers with postsecondary education have lower rates of police misconduct. Overall, officers with a college degree have improved self-control, robust analytical and critical thinking skills, reduced impulsivity, and a positive attitude. Educated officers are less likely to receive citizen complaints, participate in or be fired for egregious misconduct, and use deadly force. The likelihood continues to decrease the more education an officer receives.
Research has established that the safest and most efficient path to becoming a law enforcement officer is by getting a college degree. Your education will prepare you to handle multiple types of emergencies as calmly and effectively.
Learn Critical Job Skills
Law enforcement professionals often make decisions that impact people on a life and death scale. Even with on-the-job training, situations that officers may not be prepared for will come up frequently. Junior officers are taught by doing, which in most cases is a good way to learn and retain information.
In the case of law enforcement, a junior officer may not be prepared for a situation they are thrust into. They may struggle to figure out what to do next and take too much time to make a decision, or they may choose poorly, not having the background information or knowledge on how to properly handle the situation. Best case scenario, the matter is resolved successfully. The worst-case scenario may be that one or more people lose their lives because an inexperienced officer was unsuccessful at building the necessary skills to respond appropriately after being put on the spot under intense pressure.
A college education affords law enforcement professionals the opportunity to learn crucial skills in a safe, controlled environment. Students are then better able to formulate a response in the field, drawing on learned skills and knowledge versus scrambling for information in the moment.
How to Choose Between Law Enforcement Degree Programs
Deciding what law enforcement college to attend can be difficult, especially when you're considering a handful of options or more. Here's how you can narrow down your search:
- Make a list of your non-negotiables, such as a budget for in-state tuition fees that you absolutely cannot go over or a location that simply isn't feasible.
- Make a list of your preferences, like off-campus student apartment options or a certain group or club.
- Write down a list of law enforcement colleges you're interested, in no particular order.
- Beside each college, jot down notes about how that college ranks in the areas you identified as your non-negotiables and preferences.
- Note what kind of financial aid or scholarships you would receive at each school.
- Any college that does not meet your non-negotiables or doesn't provide enough financial aid to adequately cover tuition fees should be omitted from the list.
- Look at how many colleges ranked well for your preferences and list them in order of the most preferences to the least.
- Ideally, your chosen law enforcement school should be the one that meets all of your non-negotiables and most, if not all, of your preferences.
Career Options for Law Enforcement Majors
A law enforcement degree can afford you access to many types of jobs, including but not limited to:
A police officer protects and defends citizens within a small jurisdiction, typically called a precinct. Local officers ensure residents follow traffic laws, patrol high-crime areas, respond to emergency situations, and arrest individuals who are suspected of breaking the law.
Officers usually work in teams of two and wear easily identifiable uniforms with badges and nameplates. They drive department-issued police cruisers, carry a firearm and melee weapons such as tactical batons and tasers, help conduct preliminary criminal investigations, and ensure public safety.
Local police officers respond to resident complaints, such as calls of disturbing the peace or domestic violence. Police and detectives may work together on cases that include homicide, rape, assault, robbery, theft, suicide, and other serious crimes.
A deputy sheriff performs specific law enforcement tasks within the sheriff's department. Often, a deputy sheriff serves as a support figure to the sheriff, such as serving as a spokesperson when the department needs to make a public statement. Like all law enforcement officers, a deputy sheriff must understand jurisdictional laws and be able to think critically when under pressure.
The duties of a deputy sheriff include but are not limited to conducting criminal investigations, interview witnesses, gather evidence, respond to resident complaints, control traffic, escort individuals in police custody, and be present in courtrooms.
Fish and Game Warden
A fish and game warden, also called a conservation officer, are law enforcement officers who work at the state level. Their primary responsibility is to ensure that local fish and wildlife codes, as well as state and federal hunting, fishing, and boating laws, are obeyed within their assigned area.
Fish and game wardens are charged with the protection of wildlife from illegal activities such as trapping or poaching. They also provide assistance to visitors of local, state, and federal parks and wildlife reservations. A fish and game warden may also provide support to police departments when wildlife are involved in a case.
A state trooper, or highway patrol officer, is a law enforcement officer who operates at the state level. They are primarily responsible for enforcing laws on federal and state highways, but may also provide support to local police departments.
Most of a state trooper's job is patrolling interstates and highways to regulate traffic safety. Troopers will conduct traffic stops, respond to driver emergencies and traffic accidents, direct traffic around accident scenes, and may take offenders into police custody. They are required to document their activities and may also testify against offenders in court. State troopers who work in border states may also work with Homeland Security.
Border Patrol Agent
A border patrol agent works for the Department of Homeland Security, under the arm of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Border patrol agents are charged with maintaining security around international land borders and coastal waters near American ports of entry.
A border patrol officer monitors international borders for suspicious activity, including drug and weapons trafficking, terrorism, human trafficking, and the illegal entry of undocumented immigrants. Agents will conduct criminal investigations involving suspects near the border and make arrests as they see fit. Border patrol is a competitive field of law enforcement with a higher-than-average salary.
A homicide detective is a sworn officer of the law responsible for investigating deaths potentially related to criminal activities or deaths that do not have a clear cause in order to exclude criminal activity. Usually, homicide detectives are police officers who have been promoted, however, having an educational background in law enforcement or criminal justice makes this promotion more likely.
A homicide detective is responsible for investigating crime scenes, gathering evidence, identifying and interviewing witnesses, and working with prosecutors to bring homicide cases to court. A homicide detective is essentially on call 24/7 and must be ready to respond to a case at any time and under any conditions. Local police and detectives frequently work together on homicide cases and detectives may utilize the resources of local police to expand their investigative reach.
An FBI agent is a highly specialized law enforcement officer that works for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which is the United States' primary investigative unit and an elite global law enforcement agency. FBI agents investigate crimes on a federal level and help maintain American security.
An FBI agent is responsible for investigating crimes that violate federal law, such as money laundering, organized crime, mail fraud, kidnapping, and bank robbery. In some cases, a criminal case that crosses between state lines also falls under FBI jurisdiction. The FBI requires agents to have a high level of education and intensive training.
Thinking About Getting a Law Enforcement Degree? Get Started Now
A career in law enforcement isn't for the faint of heart, but for many, it's an exciting and rewarding line of work. Being a law enforcement officer in any capacity -- whether at the local, state, or federal level -- carries with it a great deal of responsibility, stress, and pressure.
However, you have the power to make a positive impact on your community, your state, and the country. You have the opportunity to use your skills to catch criminal offenders, help serve justice, and prevent them from hurting anyone else. The number of law enforcement agencies that require postsecondary education is growing. If you're interested in pursuing a career in the field of law enforcement, don't wait to get your college degree. Get started now.