Criminal Justice, eh?
Give Your Future Some Thought
By now I’ve been asked hundreds of times about how to be a cop. Criminal Justice is far and away the most common law enforcement degree path for those seeking to work in the law enforcement field, and in some cases it may be the right choice for that person and their specific goals. More and more schools even have a liberal arts degree called Police Science and some of those have gotten considerably better. However, what was once sound advice in general is now what some would call ballyhoo. Having been through a similar experience and ultimately serving in many different capacities in and around the law enforcement and public safety field, I’ve made it a personal mission to steer young, wide-eyed, would-be cops in a direction that offers them much more potential and absolutely gives them a broader career horizon than generic law enforcement degrees like Criminal Justice.
Federal Law Enforcement
A Degree Is A Degree, Right?
As a young man my goal was to attend law school and about that I was unequivocal (regrettably as it turns out). As I approached the admissions counselor with my goal I was quickly given the degree information for Political Science and without much discussion I signed up; after all, that’s what potential law school students do, get a degree in Political Science (or Pre-Law at some schools). As it turns out there were (and are) some problems with that practice. While the advice was rock-solid 20 or 30 years ago, since the 1990’s law schools don’t want “generic” Political Science grads, they want specialists in accounting, management, communications, etc… I’m not saying that you can’t get into law school with a Political Science degree, obviously many people do. But there’s a leg up to be had by someone competitively placed with a more specialized degree.
How does this apply to the question of how to be a cop? There are essentially two broader paths that you can choose from if you’re going to work in law enforcement: state and local law enforcement, and the federal government. If you’re going to be a city or county law enforcement officer, or even a member of your state police or investigative division, they may require a Bachelor’s degree but could really care less what it’s in, whether that be Computer Technology or Criminal Justice; the degree get’s you in and not the field of study. There is nothing you’ll learn in Criminal Justice or another law enforcement degree which will prepare you to work the street or to be a cop. Look at it like this, when you sign up with any law enforcement agency you will undergo extensive training at an academy to teach you the skills and knowledge you need to be an effective officer. The classes you take in Criminal Justice, which covers topics like correctional institutions and the court system, are things you WILL learn first hand as an officer (with few exceptions); and they have no bearing whatsoever on the daily duties of an average law enforcement officer. One last thing, when cities are interviewing candidates for the administrative Chief of Police position do you think they’ll favor the Criminal Justice degree or one in Management, Finance or Accounting?
Making The World A Safer Place
Make Your Degree Choice Wisely
The other path you could choose is to work for the federal government, and this is where the huge distinction comes in to play when deciding upon an undergraduate field of study. Let’s use the Federal Bureau of Investigation as an example, though all of the federal agencies will view applicants in essentially the same way. Recognizing what I stated above, that as an agent recruit you’ll automatically receive extensive training and learn essential skills and knowledge on how to be a cop (agent), the federal agencies are aggressively recruiting specialists in areas like languages, communication, accounting and finance, forensics, technology, etc… In addition to the very extensive training that they give new agents, they know that you’ll already have some law enforcement training since many (if not most) of the federal agents started out with state and local law enforcement agencies.
So you see, a Criminal Justice or law enforcement degree isn’t going to help you land a state or local law enforcement job anymore than a degree in Accounting would, but a degree in Accounting will absolutely give you an advantage over a Criminal Justice degree when applying to a federal agency. And here’s the main reason, in my opinion, why no one should get a general degree like Political Science or Criminal Justice; if you ever decide you're going to change career paths (or it gets decided for you like me, by not getting accepted to law school) those degrees will be of little help in the real world while you’re looking for a job (with a few exceptions of course). If, however, you were wise and chose an undergraduate degree in something more practical then you could easily navigate your way out of the law enforcement field and into another.
If you already have a Criminal Justice or law enforcement degree or are working on it now, please don’t take offense; I have a Political Science degree and place it in the same group. There is never a one-size fits all solution and for some a Criminal Justice program may suit them. For the larger audience though I strongly urge you to reconsider if you have the choice. Law Enforcement is an awesome field and I have loved every minute of it. I’ve served as a Deputy Sheriff, Patrol Sergeant, an elected Sheriff and a Director of Public Safety. It's an incredibly rewarding profession and if you’re driven to join it then you should, just make smart choices on your journey because your future rides on it. And when someone asks you how to be a cop I hope you’ll refer them to this article or have them contact me, I’m always available to help anyone looking to join the ranks of law enforcement.