Should You Have To Be Over 25 To Become A Police Officer? Or Have A College Degree? A New California Bill Would Require It

Los Angeles Police Department officers patrol an L (Gold) Line station in this file photo. (Courtesy L.A. Metro)

Last week, Democratic State Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer of Los Angeles introduced a bill that would require new police officers be at least 25 years of age, or have at least a bachelor's degree from an accredited college or university.

Under current state law, police officers have to be at least 18-years-old and have a high school diploma or equivalent. California Highway Patrol officers have to be at least 20. Police officers also have to pass background checks, psychological screenings and physical tests before they're eligible for a police academy, which takes about six months to complete. Once they're admitted to a police force, they do 12 weeks of on-the-job training.

Jones-Sawyer told LAist/KPCC that he believes an officer's age is important, in terms of maturity — particularly when new trainees are thrown into difficult situations and have to think quickly, critically and independently.

Example? Two of the officers involved in the killing of George Floyd had been on the job for less than a week. Derek Chauvin, the officer who applied the lethal force to Floyd's neck and is now facing trial for second-degree murder, was training them.

"Police officers come in to get the right training," Jones-Sawyer said. "But if they're not mature enough to fight off, let's just say the bad cops who give you bad advice ... they might be more influenced to do things that they wouldn't do if their training instructor was standing right there. And that's what we're finding — there's a gap between how officers are trained on policies and, sometimes, how they act on the street."

DOES EDUCATION AFFECT POLICING?

Christine Gardner is a professor of criminal justice at Cal State Fullerton. She says research on this topic is mixed, but there are some studies that found college-educated officers may use force less often — and that when they do, they may use less. Some studies have also found that college-educated officers face fewer lawsuits and are generally better employees. Gardner's own research has found officers with a college degree have better skills for documenting the investigative process.

But Gardner points out that none of this research is causal — it's just associative, meaning we don't know if college education was the factor that led to these outcomes of if these officers decided to attend college because they had these behaviors to begin with.

Assemblyman Jones-Sawyer pointed out, though, that four other states already have bachelor's degree requirements for police officers — Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey and North Dakota, and 18 other states require at least some college.

THE CONS

Eric Nuñez, president of the California Police Chiefs Association, told LAist/KPCC's public affairs show, AirTalk, that he's concerned such requirements could make recruiting new officers, especially those from minority communities, a lot more difficult.

Hollenbeck Police Station in Boyle Heights. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

"This legislation will almost ensure that we have less minorities in policing than we do now," he said, "and that's concerning because we're trying to reflect the populations that we serve."

Nuñez says he agrees with the idea of raising the educational standard for officers in California, but "we just don't think that this represents what we feel is a right, measured and comprehensive approach to to achieving that goal."

He instead suggested working with community colleges to create a list of required courses that all California officers would have to take. Those requirements could be taken before, during or after going through a police academy.

On the age issue, Nuñez says maturity is great, but doesn't necessarily correspond to age.

"I'm not a researcher, but I can tell you anecdotally I've seen people by the age of 21 be just as mature, or more mature, than people later in life," he said.

The California Police Chief's Association has not yet taken a formal position on the bill.

(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

THE PROS

"I'm excited to be having the conversation because I do think that increasing the education requirements for officers is a really promising idea," said professor Gardner. "I think it makes a lot of sense to increase the educational requirements at the state level, because most departments that set their minimum education requirements, according to state standards, and it also allows us to level the playing field for all agencies."

Some police forces, she said, are in well-resourced and "university-rich environments." Others aren't. This bill could help address those issues with better recruiting. Gardner added that to make it work, financial help would have to be provided so that future officers from all backgrounds can afford to enroll in college "and that agencies can afford to pay them."

Assemblyman Jones-Sawyer says the bill was designed to avoid the same kind of incident that we saw with the killing of George Floyd.

"I think it really shocked the entire nation to its core about policing," he said, "how they're trained and how they act on the street, especially when it comes to deadly force."

"We've got data that shows that the frontal cortex doesn't really develop until you're age 25," Jones-Sawyer said, explaining the idea for an age requirement. He added that 18-year-olds just don't have the same level of impulse control as 26-year-olds.

When it comes to officers who carry a gun and have to make complex decisions on the fly, he said "you want the most educated, the most mature individual" for the role. "This is not a custodial job. This is a very significant position in our community."

"We want to put the best, brightest, most mature, most intelligent workforce, out on the street," Jones-Sawyer explained. "We do that with carpenters, electricians, plumbers, architects — we do that with every other field. Everybody has some kind of intensive training, but not law enforcement."

Jones-Sawyer belives this requirement — for minimum age and/or education level — could elevate the stature of police forces in California, and change their reputation for the better.

"The standard for getting in will be so high and the professionalism ... will be so great," he said, "that almost overnight, I believe law enforcement will see a turnaround in the way people look at them."

LISTEN TO THE FULL INTERVIEW WITH ASSEMBLYMAN JONES-SAWYER HERE: