Deep dive: Minnesota police education standards vary

With bad police behavior making news regularly, you may be wondering: What exactly does it take to become a police officer?

While standards vary from state to state, Minnesota is among a handful requiring post secondary education. In terms of education standards for peace officers, most states merely require a high school diploma. 

To put this into perspective, the website How to Become a Police Officer says that about 80% of police departments in the U.S. only require a high school diploma or GED education level to fulfill police officer education requirements. These standards are set by state-level Peace Officer Standards and Training councils (POST).

About 19% of departments require varying amounts of college level education, up to an associate’s degree (typically 60 credit hours). The remaining 1% consists of police departments requiring a four-year bachelor’s degree.

Currently, according to Minnesota POST board requirements, all peace officers must have, at minimum, a two-year associate. Other requirements include being at least 18 years old, being a U.S citizen and having a valid driver’s license in their state of residence. Applicants may substitute appropriate military experience in lieu of college. 

Felony convictions almost always disqualify applicants from becoming peace officers, In some gross misdemeanor cases — such as controlled substances, assault, computer and other crimes — can also be disqualifying. 

You must also, according to Minnesota’s Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training: pass a written exam, submit to a background investigation, pass physical, fitness and psychological exams, and pass the POST Licensing exam.

Candidates who are successful must attend approximately 16 weeks of training at a POST-approved police academy. Graduates who become sworn officers often take jobs where they’re working patrol for a city police department or county sheriff’s department.

Students in Minnesota State University, Mankato’s law enforcement program are in for some change to the program’s curriculum. Pat Nelson, Government Department Chairperson and Law Enforcement & Criminal Justice Program Director at MNSU, said curriculum changes will be integrated into MNSU’s program next fall. 

The program review — ordered by MNSU President Richard Davenport in the wake of the George Floyd killing — was conducted by a diverse group of people including students, faculty and advocacy groups.

The changes identify a pathway through general education so that students in this program are able to get a broader view of society, history and community. 

Involving students in an experiential education course which will take them into diverse communities and work with different types of people is among the highlights of the curriculum changes.

“The planning that went into this part of the curriculum is more complex than others. We want it to be right, instead of quickly,” Nelson said.

Being a fifth generation law enforcement officer, Nelson previously worked for the Minneapolis Police Department starting in 1997 mainly at the North Minneapolis 4th Precinct for most of her patrol career.

Nelson worked in a variety of positions including patrol officer and sergeant, field training officer, teacher at the academy and crisis negotiator. 

After suffering from a severe back injury caused by a drunk driver, Nelson retired after working there for 17 years which led her to MNSU where she has now been since 2012. 

“I know all of us as professors are having these tougher conversations in all of our criminal justice classes,” she said. “Part of our journey is having our students open up and reflect why people might be feeling that way toward police officers.”

MNSU has had a policing and diverse society course since the 1980s as this has been a foundation of the program for years.

“I think our students here get to really see a wide view of it with our faculty, our community involvement and with our local law enforcement agencies that are involved in the program,” Nelson said.

Emma Wax, senior in the law enforcement program at MSU, said it’s not always easy being a law enforcement major.

“The most challenging aspect of being a law enforcement student currently is the lack of understanding and social support from my peers,” Wax said. “But students like myself need to stay resilient and passionate about law enforcement because we will ultimately be the pioneers of change in this career field. The strongest way to make an impact is to be involved in the changing of the system from the inside.”

Making changes at an education level are not the only changes being made as new police reforms and policies have been discussed. 

Amy Vokal, Director of Public Safety for the city of Mankato, said they will continue to work toward a stronger united community. 

“Our first priority is to protect the protesters. We will walk beside, or we will walk behind you, but we are not here to lead you, you are here to lead us,” she said. “We can only police in cooperation with the community and not over the community.”

She also said it’s critical for public safety to be an ally to the community.

“We have to work with others to really learn how to provide the best service so that everybody in our community feels safe. There is a lot of work to be done in the future and I think a lot of the world has woken up to that,” Vokal said.

As for what police departments can do in Minnesota and nationwide, Vokal says it’s simple. 

“Training needs to change,” she said. “Every incident that happens we should learn from. Everything can always be done better.”

Looking toward the future of policing in the U.S., legislation called the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021 is currently making its way through Congress. 

This pertains to former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin who was found guilty of all charges by a jury for the death of George Floyd which happened in May of 2020.

Also of note is research found by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a police research and policy organization, that focuses on police practice.

PERF has found some evidence-based training that has worked to help lower civilian and officer injury. 

One successful experiment, known as the Covid Criminal Justice Policies, showed how the city of Baltimore decreased its incarcerated population by 18%, while violent and property crimes went down 20% and 36%. 

They achieved this by no longer prosecuting for prostitution, drug possession and other low-level offenses. This experiment was intended to decrease the spread of COVID-19 behind bars, which Marilyn Mosby, Baltimore City State’s Attorney, announced in March. 

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