#JusticeBriefs Bill Watch

College requirements for police forces can save Black lives, but may increase arrest rates

WLA Guest
Written by WLA Guest

Editor’s Note: On January 1, 2022, Ab 89, the Peace Officers Education and Age Conditions for Employment (PEACE) Act became law in California, setting new requirements for law enforcement recruits. Specifically, the PEACE Act raises the minimum age for new police hires from 18 to 21. This may not be as impactful as it sounds, as fewer than one percent of the state’s law enforcement officers are younger than 21.

Likely more consequential is the bill’s other requirement that the state’s community college system come up with a plan for a “modern policing degree program” by June 1, 2023.

In the op-ed below, Georgia State University researchers discuss the surprising results of their new study, examining what impact higher education requirements for new police recruits have on the rates at which Black people die during police encounters, and the rates at which Black people are arrested. The results of the latter measurement raised alarm bells for study authors Thaddeus Johnson and Natasha Johnson, who say more research is needed to see the full impact of requiring officers to have college degrees.

By Thaddeus L. Johnson and Natasha N. Johnson, The Conversation

The big idea

Police forces requiring at least a two-year college degree for employment are less likely to employ officers who engage in actions that cause the deaths of Black and unarmed citizens, according to our new peer-reviewed study of data on 235 U.S. city police departments from 2000 to 2016.

Findings from our analysis conducted alongside colleagues professor William Sabol and David Snively, interim police chief in Morrow, Georgia, also revealed that Black citizens were no more likely than white citizens to die during police encounters in places where police are required to have more college education.

With a few exceptions, most prior research shows officer education level and department college requirements do not significantly affect deadly police outcomes. That research is mostly limited by data availability and methodological challenges preventing more rigorous studies.

Further, no one has really looked at racial differences in the effects of college requirements on police-caused deaths until our study.

Because research into the effects of college requirements on the use of lethal force by police – especially against Black people – is lacking, we analyzed a unique dataset developed from various government and crowd-sourced databases to conduct our research.

This dataset included roughly one-fifth of all documented police-involved fatalities and a quarter of Black people killed by police in the U.S. from 2000 to 2016.

Our results demonstrated that college minimums are associated with as much as three times lower rates of police-related fatalities involving Black people than police forces without a college degree requirement.

These more educated police were also responsible for unarmed citizens dying at a rate two times lower than their counterparts.

Why it matters 

Recent high-profile police killings of Black Americans, including George Floyd in 2020, have underscored long-standing issues with racial disparities in police-caused deaths.

These tragedies renewed questions about police recruitment, hiring standards and educational requirements for police forces.

Since the early 1900s, public leaders have heralded college-educated officers as ideal candidates.

The assumption is that departments would then be composed of officers who serve communities fairly while reserving potentially deadly actions for only the direst circumstances.

We can only speculate on the underlying reasons for our study’s findings.

But a key contribution of this research is that it clarifies several questions regarding college education policies in law enforcement, making it a valuable tool for police administrators.

For one, our study reveals that an associate degree requirement, at minimum, shows the most promise for reducing the frequency of fatal police encounters.

Next, as evidenced in our supplemental analysis, police agencies trying to reduce fatal confrontations should consider ways to recruit college-degreed applicants while at the same time support college attendance among current officers.

The final point is that the impact of a more educated police force may emerge during only the most dangerous encounters that often precede the use of weapons.

The positive effects of education minimums are clear, based on our research.

But we also made an alarming discovery – Black residents were arrested four times more frequently in cities requiring a college degree for new officers.

Indeed, more studies are needed.

What still isn’t known 

Several critical gaps remain in our research on the value of higher education in policing. Available data on police-caused homicides, including the Fatal Encounters data that we used, do not provide reliable information on case dispositions and whether the police actions were justified or not.

Nor do the available statistics tell us anything about police actions that do not result in death.

Also, we used college degree requirements to estimate the educational composition of police departments.

Ideally, we would examine the actual number of college-degreed officers in police agencies. Such national data remain unavailable.

This op-ed first appeared in The Conversation.

Lead photo of 2021 LAPD recruit graduation via LAPD HQ on Twitter.

Thaddeus L. Johnson is an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Georgia State University.

Natasha N. Johnson is a Clinical Instructor of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Georgia State University.


  • “Black residents were arrested four times more frequently in cities requiring a four year degree for new officers.

    Indeed, more studies are needed.”


    If these arrests are valid–not tainted by falsified facts or planted evidence–please do keep us apprised of the findings in these upcoming studies.

  • This is VALUABLE information from Johnson & Johnson. As we all know, POLICE are the problem…NOT criminal behavior. Anything we can do to make it more difficult to become a cop and then LESS difficult to fire and prosecute cops will bring throngs of qualified applicants to police agencies nationwide. I mean, what parent wouldn’t their kid to have a job where they’re reviled by the public AND stand a good chance of going to prison…for doing their job?

    I know it’s a silly idea, but….what IF…..Blacks (and everyone else) just obeyed the law? And when they DO commit crimes and get caught, just….I dunno….obeyed and complied with officers?

    “Black residents were arrested four times more frequently in cities requiring a college degree for new officers. Indeed, more studies are needed.” I think what the writers meant to say, is, “This refutes the central idea of our article and we can’t figure it out.”

  • To “magically think” requiring police officers have a college degree will decrease instances of racism or uses of deadly force has about as much basis in reality as the whole “defund the police” movements effectiveness as part of the whole “reimagining the criminal justice system”. The later has only been effective in actually emboldening and empowering criminals or should I say the “justice involved” to commit more crimes and making communities, especially those of color, less safe. The protest inspired, politically fueled, media spread and public supported movement to “demoralize, delegitimize, demean, disdain and disrespect” the uniformed “boots on the ground” law enforcement has inspired a generation to disrespect authority and had a “chilling” on police officers to do their very job. For mayors, politicians and members of the public to have such little respect for “in the field law enforcement” and then to all of a sudden look to them to fix the mess they supported is the ultimate in contempt. Maybe the FBI can be the savior since everybody likes them?

    Good luck attracting college graduates who are saddled with student loan debt, have undergone the indoctrination of the US educational system and have numerous other safer and socially respected career options to want to be a police officer. No way! Why? If the current state of recruitment in most major police departments is a window into the future of 21st law enforcement gains and retention, the outlook is bleak. Maybe smaller departments may be able to attract degreed police officer candidates with promises such as sign on bonuses, higher wages and competitive benefit packages but what about large metropolitan departments? It’s going to be tough to attract “talent” (to borrow from the corporate vernacular) while politicians hold true to their promise to defund the police. Who will ultimately suffer? Those communities of color who predominately live in these urban areas whose police departments can’t offer attractive recruitment packages to degreed candidates.

    A fine mess it is!

  • The Milli Vanilli of law enforcement have spoken.

    Maybe we can hire “ambassadors” and S.W.A.T. (Social Workers & Therapists) to handle these emboldened criminals?

    Hey Milli, how come you and Vanilli DO NOT address the black on black crime which is spiraling out of control in some black communities (i.e., Philly, Atlanta, ChiRaq, etc.)? I presume it is much more easier to deflect than to accept responsibility.

    Let me share something with you, just because someone has a degree does not make them intellectually better (i.e., Joe Biden). Didn’t he graduate Magna Cum Laude, or was it Summa Cum Laude, or well, just graduate, barely.

  • They city council meeting discussed mandating that applicants have a military background, while I guess guys like that dep whose “bodily fluid” was found in the private area of female innate. oh and he was ex army. That being said I guess things would be profoundly different if they got ppl with a college background right? GTFOH!!! [WLA edit.] There is no changing it or the disgusting paper trail it has left behind. go back to the drawing board…here’s an idea, stop hiring Adam Lanzas’, Salvadore Ramos’ Nik Cruz, Dylan Roofs’, etc. giving them guns and badges and telling them to enforce the damn law. stop hiring these “ex high school loser’s” who have no friends, never got laid, never made the team etc and letting them be cops. Stop hiring these loser’s who just want to be a part of something. Stop hiring these guys that cant wait to use their dept. issued firearm when force issue arises. Stop hiring these traumatized fools that cant wait to bully back with guns and partners they can radio in to beat the crap out of somebody. College, military psh…U lames get out of here

  • It would be fun to take classes by The Johnsons and listen to their “take” on crime and what is wrong with the criminal justice system. I am sure from the Ivory Tower things look a lot different than they do at Willowbrook Blvd and Piru St. – I’d like to see The Johnsons stand on that corner some summer Saturday night and wait for their vision of a college educated LEO to come and help them as they are stripped of all of their worldly possessions. People like them have their heads stuck so high up in the clouds (and elsewhere), are clueless about the reality of police work, who are the best at doing the job and what it REALLY takes to get the job done.

  • Im fully aware of the reality of po po work. I worked at Compton, Carson, Malibu, Wayside etc. bruh. I also have an ex that had an affair with her training officer under your wonderful Matt Dendo and was never reprimanded for it. Dont u dare tell somebody with real things to say about the, “reality of cop work” gtfoh…I’m sooookoo glad im no longer apart of that dept. bc of ppl like u who probably fit the mold I spoke about. I have 30 + years of the reality of this crap. go away as we used to say to annoying inmates hanging on bars begging for stuff…

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