Prepping Police: How Tailored Competency-Based Programming Can Support Career Growth
Career advancement in law enforcement traditionally relied upon earning a formal postsecondary credential. However, as many adult learners across industries have learned, it’s difficult to find the time to progress through a traditionally designed degree program. In this interview, Jimmy Womack—a former chief of police whose career in law enforcement spanned four decades before he entered the postsecondary space—discusses the Texas A&M University Commerce online criminal justice program, reflects on the value of an online, competency-based program as a mechanism to support law enforcement professionals’ careers, and shares some insights on the future of related programming.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): Could you briefly describe your program and highlight some of the challenges it aims to address?
James Womack (JW): We launched a competency-based bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, with a target market of practitioners. We serve law enforcement agencies, officers, and academy programs.
The program concept started out as a completer program—designed for folks with some college credit but no degree. But once we got rolling, it transitioned into a full four-year program. This was because we found a lot of the officers did not have the lower level core curriculum completed.
To accomplish this, we tagged on to our other program—an organizational leadership degree with core programs already built in—and grew the criminal justice program from there.
Evo: Why is a bachelor’s degree program important for law enforcement professionals who want to advance their careers?
JW: The issues that have plagued policing for centuries are no secret—especially in today’s society, with all the negativity and untrustworthy actions. There’s a great deal of research showing that educated police officers are less likely to be involved in uses of force, and are less likely to have internal affairs issues or complaints filed against them. They are better able to articulate actions whenever they are making reports and are more effective in delivering courtroom testimony. So, they’re more productive.
Additionally, if we in law enforcement are going to consider ourselves as a profession, then we need to be professionals. What does it take to be a professional in any other industry in the United States? Well, in order to be a nurse, an accountant, a doctor or a lawyer, completing a formal education is absolutely necessary. This program will help us fulfill that need.
Evo: What are the benefits of the competency structure for students?
JW: I took the traditional route to complete my education since these options weren’t available to support my personal growth. The fact is that a number of the reasons why a police officer could not or would not get a degree have been addressed by the model of a competency-based program.
In a traditional online program—even one that’s asynchronous—there are certain requirements that are typically a part of the infrastructure of that program. For example, you may have to engage in discussion questions, or maybe log on at particular dates and times for interactive videos. In face-to-face classes, there are required daily meet times.
None of this is conducive to the life of a law enforcement officer. I remember having to be at court during the day then work a night shift, and try to fit an algebra class in there. It’s very difficult.
We’ve been able to leverage professional development to help aid that educational process. We’re able to use the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, which is a Texas licensing board for police who have established a career progression for this profession. According to their structure, it’s a 20-year progress to become a master peace officer without any college. A college education speeds up the process considerably, depending on whether an individual has earned an associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree or graduate degree.
When we started doing this program, we had people coming into the program as master peace officers. We had retired Texas Rangers who were interested in completing a degree. These are very skilled people. So leveraging their past experiences and giving college credit for lower level criminal justice courses really aided in both sides. It prevented the officer from becoming bored in basic criminal justice courses, which they could probably teach if they had a degree. But it also sped up the process for them and allowed them to cut educational cost. They could get up to 30 hours of lower level criminal justice credits because of their experience. That let them know that the university values their real-world experience.
Being able to bridge that gap between academia and execution is one of those things that that we had been lacking.
Evo: What did it take to launch the program?
JW: We started in the summer of 2017, and launched in March 2019. To be clear, though, the obstacles we faced were not institutional. We wanted to make sure we were building something of value.
So we didn’t want to take a traditional criminal justice program, convert it to the CBE format and hit the light switch. We wanted something that was going to fill the need of the practitioner. So we got together with our advisory board—composed of industry professionals—and asked them what they wanted their people to know, what their agencies needed, and what knowledge and competency would be valuable for an advancing law enforcement professional.
Once we had that feedback we needed to hash it all out, to define what these leaders were looking for and examine how we could build it into the program. For example, officer wellness came up, which can have both an internal and external perspective. You can look at that either from a physical standpoint or a psychological standpoint, both of which are important. After assessing the issue and looking at it closely, we realized we didn’t want to pick one and focus on it—we needed our program to encompass both.
The hashing out slowed the processes, but it created a funnel. We started with generic ideals and then fine tuned them, trying to figure out exactly what it was, and then taking it back to the board and discussing any progress or changes, and then tweaking from there.
Evo: What are the key lessons you’ve learned since your program went live?
JW: The first lesson was understanding the expertise and the knowledge gap of our students. In our programs, we have people with incredibly advanced skillsets. We’re serving chiefs of police, elected sheriffs—we even have a retired major in the Texas Rangers. All of these people in this program, their industry knowledge is much higher than what most people would have anticipated. Now their academic writing styles, APA formatting, those kinds of things are typically where you would expect them to be. But their ability to take this new knowledge and learn from it, grow with it and hopefully utilize it has been impressive to me.
When these professionals come in here that are typically type A personalities with policing, you may anticipate some pushback. But it has been an educational process for all of us. I’ve heard from several who have already put into play some policies and procedures that they experienced in this program. That’s where the rubber meets the road.
Another lesson is that the requirements for an education in Texas for policing have never truly existed. There were never any kind of educational expectations to become a chief of police. So we have chiefs of police in Texas who have a GED. But as society and policing change, a lot of the more progressive agencies now require a degree to reach certain levels in the command staff. In the Fort Worth Police Department, for example, I believe they can reach the rank of sergeant or lieutenant without a degree, but advancing into a command position requires a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree. People who have been in profession for a number of years, now have the opportunity to change their entire life. Their rotating shifts don’t allow for a traditional education for the most part. But this opens the door for everybody.
Those who couldn’t get a traditional education now have access, which allows them to progress into to the higher levels in command. This will positively impact our profession, but will also impact that individual’s life, income potential and retirement.
This program has a much broader perspective than anything that I’ve ever seen in policing.
Evo: Looking forward, how do you think TAMU-Commerce could continue to build programming and services designed to serve law enforcement professionals?
JW: I would like to create track programs within the degree. When we talk about policing, most people focus in on the police officer, but there so many other professions behind the scenes that often get forgotten or ignored. There are the correctional officers, either in the county jails, municipal jails, Texas prison systems. There are tele-communicators, the dispatchers in each agency. There’s property and evidence people who are often not peace officers. There’s records. There’s all kinds of other professions that could benefit from this same type of degree, because each one of those positions (other than records) require a state license as well.
So, whether you’re a correctional officer, a jailer, a tele-communicator, all of those have licensing. We could create programs that would help bring those people up to speed and continue on the same way that we are currently focusing on police officers.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.