Education or Violence? By Carrington Jackson

Education or Violence?


Carrington Jackson

After remaining relatively dormant since the early 1990’s, coverage of race conflict has regained national attention. In an age where social hashtags stand in place of million man marches, and a Tweet, in place of a boycott—the way society expresses its discontent for injustice has considerably changed.

The ability to shoot-share-and receive media instantaneously is a direct reflection of the hurried lifestyles we live.  The news floods our devices with legal language, and in turn, make standards of proof like probable cause and reasonable suspicion household terms.

While these terms may be more mainstream, their meanings are not so easily understood. The term “probable cause” is a constitutional requirement found in the Fourth Amendment. Probable cause is usually found when there is a rational basis for believing a crime may have been committed.[1] Furthermore, the existence of probable cause depends on the ‘totality of the circumstances’ of the arrest.[2] The ‘totality of the circumstances’ considers the arresting officers knowledge or reasonable belief regarding the suspect at the time of the arrest.[3]  Because probable cause does not have a formal definition, courts typically choose the broader and more flexible view of the term.[4]

Similarly, under the penumbra of probable cause, the definition of the term “reasonable suspicion” is just as indeterminable. Essentially, reasonable suspicion requires that an officer have sufficient knowledge or belief that there is ongoing criminal activity.[5] Since it is a lesser standard than probable cause, police officers are given the discretion to make situational assessments, and hopefully, rational inferences from the facts before them.[6]

Without a concrete method set to evaluate the “probable cause” or “reasonable suspiciousness” of all suspects, these imprecise standards are left for officers to interpret—placing police officers at the center of balance between society and the law. Like surgeons, police officers are sometimes burdened with making the choice between life and death. In a majority of cases, the right decision is made. However, as recent headlines demonstrate, wrong decisions that are specifically related to race issues are becoming far too commonplace.

Evidence of police officers’ questionable decisions are chronicled by landmark hashtags like, #ICantBreathe and #HandsUpDontShoot. In a Brooklyn Magazine article written recently after Eric Garner’s death, Phillip Pantuso contends that Daniel Pantaleo [the officer that choked and ultimately killed Eric Garner] “did the wrong thing, but at every step of the way, his actions were rational in context . . .[and] it’s the context that needs changing.[7]” That “context,” I contend, is the crossroad where the imprecise standards of probable cause, and the education requirements of police officers meet.

Through their work, police officers encounter a broad swath of people—from bankers, to suburban housewives, to criminals and troublemakers, all of whom come from very diverse backgrounds. That diversity is especially apparent in communication. By the same token, it is inevitable that during those encounters, confrontation will arise because of miscommunication. However, there seems to be an upward trend in this level of disconnect—more specifically, situations involving Blacks and Whites.

Higher education serves as the bridge—promoting social tolerance by exposing individuals to our world and the people we share it with. Following urban unrest in the 1960s, there was a move toward requiring college degrees for police officers.[8] Unfortunately, that movement never gained serious traction.[9] Because the public eye is often drawn to the dramatics found in the dynamic between white officers and black suspects, we tend to apply a stricter public scrutiny to the outcome of these cases. While dogged racial tensions may be an important factor in the overall discussion, the misinterpretation of legal standards by our police, caused by the even lower educational threshold for their hiring, is equally disturbing.

A 2003 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 83 percent of all U.S. police agencies only require a high school diploma; eight percent require some college; and only one percent requires a four-year college degree.[10]

Ultimately, even if the terms probable cause and reasonable suspicion are given more precise definitions, the standard’s application would still be left up to an officer’s discretion. For example, amidst a tense emotional situation like an arrest, an officer is forced to analyze the situation instantaneously.  And, like most professions that requires increased stress or specialized knowledge (e.g., pharmacist, doctors, attorneys, etc.), there is a requirement of some form of higher education.

The ability to connect, and at the very least, to understand individuals and their beliefs, is fundamental in today’s society. In 1994, the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, Inc., found that, “[o]fficers who have received a broad general education have a better opportunity to gain a more thorough understanding of society, to communicate more effectively with citizens, and to engage in the exploration of new ideas and concepts.”[11]

These findings were further substantiated in a 2010 Police Quarterly study uncovering those officers with some college education or a four-year degree decided to use almost 15 percent less than an officer with a high school-education.[12]  The study used a definition of “force” that covered conflict from verbally threatening suspects to pointing or firing a gun.[13]

Similarly, William Terrill, a criminal justice professor at Michigan State University, found that “since force is a more discretionary and individual decision, there is a greater opportunity for biases to surface.[14]” This often means asking an officer who may have some preexisting prejudices—or even worse, negative or previous dealings with a member of another race/ethnic background—to fairly analyze and diffuse hostile encounters.

Further, Terrill held that officers without a college education are more likely to think that they are the law with the power to enforce their will.[15] Though this may not be true of all officers, evidence clearly suggests that the presence or absence of higher education directly influences an officer’s choice to use force.[16]

Logically, if public officers are required to obtain a degree in higher education then they should receive a pay increase. Better compensation, in turn, would lead to higher taxes; and many individuals view higher taxes as a burden on society. However, as a society shouldn’t we invest in police officers, given all the good they do to protect and serve? Paying for educated police officers should be a top priority. Don’t #[All]lives matter?

Ultimately, until there is a revived discussion about better ways to educate our police, and until these officers are better equipped with an understanding of the legal standards that they apply, police violence will surely continue.

[1] Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213, 232 (1983).

[2] Id.

[3] United States v. Humphries, 372 F.3d 653, 657 (4th Cir. 2004).

[4] Gates at 232 (1983).

[5] Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 27 (1968).

[6] Ybarra v. Illinois, 444 U.S. 85, 91 (1979).

[7]  Phillip Pantuso, Daniel Pantaleo: Basically An Average Cop

[8] John L. Hudgins, Require college degrees for police, The Baltimore Sun, September 30, 2014 at Commentary

[9] Id.

[10] Jeffrey L. Sedgwick, U.S. Department of Justice, 2003 Bureau of Justice Statistics on Law Enforcement Management and Administrative Statistics, found online at

[11] Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies Standards manual 1994,

[12] Jason Rydberg & William Terrill, The Effect of Higher Education on Police Behavior, Police Quarterly 2010 13: 92, originally published online 3 January 2010. The online version of this article can be found a

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.


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