For most professions, it’s hard to imagine a time when higher education was discouraged, but not long ago this was the reality for many in law enforcement.
Real-world training trumped hitting the books, and many who wore a badge preferred learning on the streets to sitting in a classroom.
“When I started here, education wasn’t a priority,” said Los Alamitos Police Chief Todd Mattern. “I remember one time I said to my boss, ‘I can’t attend training, I have a final.’ That didn’t go over well.”
Mattern said he persisted on showing up for the test, despite pushback from his boss.
He caught up on the missed training and later earned his bachelor’s degree in occupational studies from Cal State Long Beach.
The law enforcement landscape has changed drastically since the 1980s when Mattern was fighting for support from his superiors to earn his degree.
Today, agencies embrace the importance of combining education and tactical training to make their officers better.
With an entire force of college-educated officers, the Los Alamitos Police Department serves as the prime example of this cultural shift.
“Someone can become a police officer with a GED, and people know that,” Mattern said. “I think some people assume that makes up a good portion of the officers we have, and that’s not the case.”
Of the 21 sworn officers at the Los Alamitos PD, all have bachelor’s degrees and three hold master’s. Degrees cover a variety of areas including criminal justice, sociology, visual arts and educational management.
“Having a degree is not a requirement, but it just has become our culture,” Mattern said. “I think everybody here takes their professional development very seriously.
“They want to be the best cops that they can be. As part of that, they’ve all been very committed to higher education and to professional development.”
The department Friday celebrated three officers earning their bachelor’s degrees from Columbia College at a small ceremony aboard the Queen Mary in Long Beach.
Sgt. Chris Karrer, Cpl. Kain Gallaugher and Cpl. Chris Anderson graduated in October with degrees in general studies and minors in criminal justice.
“It’s something I should’ve done a long time ago,” Anderson said. “I personally feel that a college education is important.”
After high school, Anderson obtained an electrician’s certificate with plans to join the family air conditioning business.
A ride-along with his brother-in-law changed his career choice and he joined the Los Alamitos PD 16 years ago.
After he and his wife welcomed their second child in 2007, Anderson decided to go back to school.
An 80-mile work commute, along with varying shifts, homework and raising two small children made for a stressful start to his college career.
“The first two years were pretty rough,” he said. “It was really tough to try and balance and figure out how I was going to do it.”
He took a class at a time until he could make room for more.
With perseverance, Anderson, 40, obtained his degree.
Anderson said he intends to go for his master’s degree in business administration.
A college education, he said, complements officers’ tactical training.
“It causes you to process and analyze things in a way you never did before,” he said. “Education gives you a different perspective.”
Mattern said since there has been a shift in his officers pursuing higher degrees, there are fewer lawsuits filed against the department, fewer citizen complaints and less use-of- force incidents.
“I just fully believe that educated cops make better cops,” Mattern said. “In my experience, they make better decisions out in the field, they develop their critical thinking skills and their communication skills are better.
“It makes for a more professional police department, and gives us more credibility in the community.”