The ABCs of online education

When Laura Pettler decided to pursue her terminal degree, she already had a full plate. She headed the Crime Scene Reconstruction and Behavioral Analysis Program of North Carolina’s Prosecutorial District Twenty A with former District Attorney Michael...


When Laura Pettler decided to pursue her terminal degree, she already had a full plate.

She headed the Crime Scene Reconstruction and Behavioral Analysis Program of North Carolina’s Prosecutorial District Twenty A with former District Attorney Michael Parker; coordinated the district’s Cold Case Task Force; and in her spare time operated her own business, Carolina Forensics LLC.

With all of this going on, this crime scene reconstructionist certainly wasn’t able to sit in a classroom a set number of hours every week.

“My job required me to be available 24 hours a day,” she explains.

But Pettler says she felt a Ph.D. was essential in her quest to contribute to law enforcement, public service and society as a whole.

Online education offered the perfect fit for her specific circumstances. Capella University’s online education program enabled her to pursue her doctorate degree in public safety, and just over three years later she had it, along with a newfound understanding of her profession.

“This degree helped me take my company to the next level,” she says. “The work I’m doing at this time would have been impossible without it. This journey helped me not only recognize the science of what I was doing but also the art in everything I was doing, and it put me in a position to speak on my craft and really contribute to the field.”

D is for degree

Many police departments only require a high school education and academy training to work as a police officer, but that is beginning to change. Numerous agencies now require at least an associate’s degree, and some metropolitan departments even seek a bachelor’s degree.

Tim Hardiman, manager of law enforcement programs at American Military University (AMU), which is part of the American University System, agrees and says he wants to see more officers obtain advanced degrees. He draws upon experiences, as a former precinct commander for the New York City Police Department, when he says he believes higher education for law enforcement is good for “the profession, the department and the community.”

“The police academy is very good at telling officers what to do but a higher education teaches them why they do what they do, which leads to better decision making when a situation doesn’t exactly fit into a procedure,” he says, noting officers with advanced degrees typically possess better analytical and writing skills than those without.

And, says Brad Naples, CEO and founder of The Response Network LLC, a firm offering integrated online training for first responders, a well-trained force reduces officer, department and community risk. “If officers are not well trained and do not understand certain aspects of the law, it exposes the department to lawsuits,” he says. “The worst case scenario is a situation where an officer or citizen gets injured unnecessarily because the officer is not well trained.”

He says the director of a department The Response Network currently works with said it best when he stated: “I can pay now for some extra training or pay a whole lot more in a lawsuit later.”

L is for life

But as Pettler’s story indicates, life can be a stumbling block to those in a profession where irregular hours make it impractical and even impossible for officers to commit to coursework on campus.

“Online education allows officers to go to school and work at the same time,” says Pettler. “They still have to balance family life and work. It still requires commitment and sacrifice. But online learning can be easier from the standpoint that you don’t have to go to a physical class.”

Most (but not all) online training and education is designed to be asynchronous, meaning students are not required to log in to their virtual classrooms at set times every week to participate in discussions with classmates and professors. If two law enforcement officers enroll in the same class — and one works days and the other nights, both can participate in the class on their own time.

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