As of late May, the Colorado Springs Police Department no longer is requiring sworn officers to have a college education to qualify for promotion. Instead, officers can substitute two years of experience for one year of college, meaning an officer would need eight years of experience to substitute for a four-year bachelor's degree.
Police Chief Pete Carey made the change to allow officers who otherwise would be ineligible for advancement to climb the ladder. In a memo to the Civil Service Commission, which heard the proposal March 31, Carey writes that "it became apparent that a number of high quality officers were not able to advance to higher positions as the result of an education requirement that was meant to enhance department leadership." The change, he adds, "provides an opportunity for excellent performing officers who have not been able to finish a degree to advance in the CSPD ranks."
That said, Carey also notes in the memo that his new policy encourages officers to finish their degrees quickly, or face a delay in taking a promotion exam until they log enough years of service.
The change seems to be in line with a couple of comparable departments. A spokesman for the Denver Civil Service Commission says no degree is required for promotion in the Denver Police Department. The same is true of the El Paso County Sheriff's Office, says spokeswoman Jackie Kirby via email.
"For a line level deputy to reach the level of Deputy One, they must have at least 36 [higher-education] credit hours," she says. "Other than that, there is no education requirement for promotion to supervisory positions."
The CSPD appears to be a highly educated force, with 541, or about 80 percent, of its authorized strength of 683 sworn officers having obtained some college credits. And 387 have a bachelor's degree or higher, according to data provided by the department.
In the past, an officer with only a high school diploma has needed five years of service and two years of college to test for sergeant. Under the new program, that officer can test for sergeant after nine years of service. Similar changes apply for lieutenant and commander applicants.
To help officers attain their education goals, the city may reimburse tuition and fees, if funds are available, upon completion of courses directly related to their jobs. Officers need to earn a C grade or better for any undergraduate classes and a B grade or better for any graduate-level courses, to qualify.
From 2012 to 2014, the city reimbursed sworn and civilian police employees $93,582. But the trend toward higher education is declining. In 2012, the city reimbursed $40,100 in tuition and fees, compared to $32,200 last year.
It's also worth noting that the relaxed education requirement hasn't created a stampede to take the sergeant's test. By the May 29 deadline for this year's test, 64 officers had signed up, compared to 73 when the test was last offered, in 2013.
Dick Reisler, a retired CSPD detective and Civil Service Commission member, says in an email he supports the decision, as does the Police Protective Association. He says officers who work strange hours, including off-duty time to testify in court, find it difficult to pursue degrees. "I have also known and worked for college educated people that were incapable of transferring their knowledge into a 'Practical Application,'" he writes.
Research is mixed on whether more education positively impacts police officers' performance.
The Police Association for College Education, which advocates for higher-ed requirements, cites several studies suggesting that college grads draw fewer valid complaints and are busted in fewer corruption schemes than non-grads.
But logging college hours doesn't automatically translate to professionalism, according to a study featured in the October 2005 issue of The Police Chief magazine by Matthew Bostrom, chief of staff for the St. Paul (Minnesota) Police Department. The study found that officers with only a high school diploma, compared with those with a four-year degree, had fewer on-duty vehicle collisions, fewer disciplinary actions, used fewer sick hours and drew slightly more commendations.
Carey notes in his comments to the Civil Service Commission that the department isn't abolishing the education requirement but opening the door for long-time officers to advance.
"The department remains highly aware of the importance of education in police ranks and the benefits that education brings to police work and citizen contact," Carey says in his memo. "This modification to promotional minimum qualifications is a win for the officers, the department and the community by ensuring the department can appoint the best quality leadership in key role[s]."