It is said that education is not a destination, but rather a lifetime journey. The value of a law enforcement agent to his department is directly related to that agent's educational pursuits above and beyond what he brings with him to the job. Constant study and practice will enhance a career faster than experience alone.
It goes without saying that a law degree can be especially useful if you are pursuing a career in law enforcement, and in many cases it is actually a requirement. At the local, county, and state levels of law enforcement, law degrees are rarely required and seldom seen. On those rare occasions when officers, deputies, or agents have a degree in law, their depth of understanding of the process supersedes that of other department members, and tends to elevate them in rank. Few street officers are actually lawyers, but many attorneys were once patrol officers or field agents. Possessing a law degree at the local level usually pushes an officer into a courtroom, where the department's cases are presented. Often it means working for a district or county attorney's office as a prosecutor of criminal cases, which automatically places that individual in charge of all elements in an ongoing investigation.
At the federal level of law enforcement, many more individuals have a degree in law, but the degree is not so commonplace that you won't find advantages to having one. An agent with a law degree who is assigned to investigate a crime has a leg up on his contemporaries by virtue of his understanding of the legal process. Presentation of cases before the federal courts is done almost exclusively by agents who hold law degrees. Holding a degree in law also prepares agents for the lobbying efforts that federal agencies must undertake in order to increase or maintain funding levels for their agencies. Congress is ultimately the decision maker when it comes to authorizing funding for all federal programs, and providing members of Congress with relevant and well-framed arguments is the surest way to ensure job security.
One of the most sought after degrees among many of the federal agencies is an advanced degree in accounting. Being a chartered certified public accountant (CPA) is one of the most desirable credentials for investigative enforcement agencies like the FBI, the IRS, and the Treasury Department. Since the majority of crimes in the United States today are financial, being able to follow a money trail is an important and valuable skill. Advanced methods of accounting are often used by criminals, and those trained in standard accounting practices are the ones who can discover where money is actually coming from and to whom it really belongs. The money often leads to offshore accounts, which are bank accounts maintained in other countries that are often difficult to trace back to an individual.
Law enforcement agents that have an advanced degree in accounting can also prevent crimes from taking place. Criminals may be aware that an agency has accountants on staff to examine the bookkeeping of a suspect business or organization, and as a result will not attempt to commit a financial crime.
More and more, the field of law enforcement is becoming reliant upon the medical community to solve crimes and bring criminals to justice. The breakthroughs in the use of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) as a positive means of identification in criminal investigations are thanks to the field of medicine. Although they are expensive and time-consuming, DNA comparisons can now positively connect an individual suspect to a crime scene, or at the very minimum, provide a narrow range of suspects.
One aspect of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) restricts medical practitioners at all levels with regard to a patient's privacy. Because under the act patients are entitled to complete privacy, doctors are hard-pressed to serve both the patient and the goals of law enforcement.
A medical practice does not preclude an individual from joining law enforcement, but the limitations placed upon a physician after taking the Hippocratic oath are in direct conflict with the responsibilities of any law enforcement oath of office. Doctor-patient confidentiality alone would severely limit a practicing physician from doing a law enforcement job properly.
While the above is true, individuals with degrees in medical sciences—whether they are undergraduate or postgraduate level—can usually find their niche in law enforcement. An advanced understanding of the human body, how it works and how it reacts to known stimuli, is often crucial in solving crimes. Being able to investigate these kinds of abnormalities is essential to solving many crimes and to conducting effective prosecutions.
Chemistry is one science that is fundamental to most areas of law enforcement. From the collection of evidence to the formulation of certain powders used for firearms ammunition, there are chemical components in all fields within law enforcement. Positions that require a chemical degree are few, and highly technical, but they are essential to their agencies and the overall mission, and often the outcome of cases depends on their findings.
The alarming increase in computer crimes has prompted the need for personnel with computer programming expertise within law enforcement. Programming is an analytical activity, one that is consistent with the methodical and logical approaches to situations that investigators must employ. Aside from the obvious purpose that computer programmers serve (understanding crimes that are perpetrated using a computer), they are needed inside agencies to set up networks and electronic organization methods and to keep these systems running properly within their agencies.
An example of the need for computer programmers in law enforcement is the reliance of agencies across the country on an FBI database. The FBI maintains the NCIC (National Crime Information Center), which is actually a giant mainframe computer. Contained within that computer are all of the constantly updated stolen articles and wanted and missing persons that are reported by every law enforcement agency in the United States. This system requires the supervision of highly skilled specialists who fully grasp its complexities.
Determining the precise trajectory of a bullet after it has been fired from a gun, or reconstructing the exact path taken by a multitude of vehicles involved in a major traffic accident, requires an understanding of the application of physics. Possessing more than a passive understanding of the laws of physics and their application in investigations is extremely beneficial for a law enforcement agent. Although an understanding of the human and psychological elements are needed to get to the bottom of any crime (the establishment of motive being essential to show culpability), nailing down the mechanical and physical aspects of evidence falls to those with a clearly defined grasp of the fundamental laws of physics.
If something is forensic, it relates to or deals with the application of scientific knowledge to criminal law. Forensic chemistry, for example, is the application of chemistry to questions of law. If something is relative to the matter at hand in a criminal investigation, then it is forensic. For the matter to be considered within the realm of forensic science, it must meet the test of scientific method. The scientific method is a set of procedures that scientists use to test different hypotheses until they find a hypothesis that can be proven.
According to the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, becoming a forensic scientist requires a number of qualifications: a bachelor's degree, preferably in science; an advanced degree in biology, chemistry, or mathematics; good speaking skills; an ability to take good notes; the ability to create scientific reports that are easily comprehended; true intellectual curiosity; and personal integrity.
Although it is commonly thought that forensic science is something that is carried out only in a laboratory or a morgue, much of the analytical work of forensic scientists is done in offices and conference rooms, far removed from the smell of formaldehyde and isopropyl alcohol. In fact, many forensic scientists never step foot in either a lab or a morgue.
Forensic scientists include doctors and dentists, certainly. But other technical scientists deal with toxicology, chemistry, earth sciences, metallurgy, meteorology, ballistics, acoustics, and photonics. There are physical anthropologists, psychiatrists, and psychologists that are engaged in this broad and ever-expanding field. People who specialize in examining documents, paint samples, fibers, and all sorts of unknown substances are included as well. From educators at all levels to engineers, those who participate in criminal investigations by employing the scientific method are forensic scientists.