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Master’s in Law Enforcement vs Criminal Justice

masters in law enforcement vs criminal justice
Police and detectives made up over 800,000 of the jobs held in the US in 2016, a staggering number that is projected to increase through 2026, with an additional 120,000 people being employed by federal agencies.

The variety of roles within the law enforcement field is enormous, ranging from police officers to secret service to FBI agents and all of the administrative positions in between. With such a large number of people employed in the effort to keep our communities safe, higher education in law enforcement has become increasingly important not only for professional advancement, but to better serve the public on a day-to-day basis.

Criminal justice and law enforcement degrees serve a variety of purposes, and the best fit for you will depend on the trajectory of your career. A good starting point for narrowing down which programs you may want to pursue is to look at the overall scope of the degree.

For example, many law enforcement master’s programs offer focused education in a specific area of the field. Criminal justice master’s degrees, on the other hand, may include concentrations while covering a broader body of knowledge that can be applied to many different careers within the criminal justice system.


Why Get a Master’s in Law Enforcement?

Studies show that police officers and other law enforcement professionals who pursue graduate-level education are ranked higher across several factors related to performance, such as report writing, problem solving and budget management. Additionally, those who sought out continued education experienced fewer work-related injuries when compared to the average.

In addition to the immediately practical applications of a law enforcement degree, graduate education gives established members of the workforce the opportunity to bolster their likelihood of upward movement within their careers.


Master’s in Law Enforcement vs. Master’s in Criminal Justice

The first step for law enforcement professionals pursuing a graduate degree is to consider what area of the workforce they want their careers to focus on.

Master’s in Law Enforcement

A master’s degree in law enforcement is a good option if you have a specific path you want to pursue, and you know that you’ll continue along that path for the long term. On the other hand, a master’s in criminal justice can maximize your career flexibility by giving you a comprehensive education in different aspects of the criminal justice system. Because of the broad scope of their responsibilities, roles such as law enforcement administration can also benefit significantly from the comprehensive education offered by a criminal justice master’s program.

Master’s in Criminal Justice

For those interested in gaining a broad perspective on the criminal justice system, a master’s degree in criminal justice can provide the depth and breadth of education to enter or pursue advancement in a variety of environments.

Many criminal justice master’s programs offer a range of electives or focus areas, enabling students to tailor their education for the specific area they want to focus on. For example, the University of Wisconsin-Platteville’s online Master of Science in Criminal Justice program offers tracks designed for different career trajectories, including:

UW-P students can also create a custom criminal justice focus area by grouping electives that align with an area of interest, such as social justice. Specialized focus areas within criminal justice programs provide the chance to tailor your education to your individual goals, whether you want to develop a particular skillset for advancing in law enforcement, pursue roles related to criminal justice research or are looking for a master’s degree to increase your earning potential.

UW-P’s criminal justice management focus area, for example, uses the program’s core classes as a foundation, while electives let students develop their skills in communication and management. This gives them the broad context for understanding the key challenges for organizations in the criminal justice system alongside practical skills they can apply to their jobs immediately.

Similarly, the victim and offender services focus area leverages the same foundation while offering additional coursework in crisis intervention, delinquency, and child advocacy. This can help to enhance a career as a parole officer or empower law enforcement professionals to become better advocates for victims.

Criminal justice certificate programs offer another form of specialized education, where professionals can pursue knowledge in a subarea of law enforcement or advocacy that interests them. For example, UW-P’s Online Certificate in Child Advocacy Studies enables students to tailor their educations toward working with victims who are children.


Master’s Degrees in Law Enforcement

Law Enforcement Administration

With a degree in law enforcement administration, the curriculum focuses on issues related to managing organizations. As a result, these programs can help students build skills for leadership roles in fire departments, emergency response teams, government agencies and a variety of other settings. The combination of understanding day-to-day tasks, with budget, staffing, and communication needs can better position graduates to not only support these organizations, but help them connect to the communities that they serve.

Law Enforcement Intelligence and Analysis

A master’s degree in law enforcement intelligence and analysis focuses on analyzing crime trends and patterns with the intent to predict and prevent criminal activity. Through courses in causation and prevention, research analysis and design, and criminal behavior analysis, graduates will be prepared to work in local and federal agencies as well as for intelligence contractors that partner with the government.

Some programs may also allow for in-depth study of intelligence gathering, including intense study of geopolitical and governmental applications of intelligence for counterterrorism, a skill that increased in demand after the September 11 attacks.


Combining Your Degree and Your Career

Whether pursuing a master’s in law enforcement or a degree in criminal justice, completing a graduate program can open the door to new opportunities and increased salary, especially when combined with on-the-job training or other professional development. The key to getting the most out of both forms of advancement is to find the areas you’re most passionate about or disciplines where there is a lack of expertise in the current job market.

For example, one of the ways the knowledge gained in a graduate criminal justice program can be applied is through supporting and utilizing new technology within law enforcement. One example of this in practice is technology like ShotSpotter, a monitoring system that is distributed throughout a city and reports when gunshots are fired. This has not only decreased response time, but it has also allowed criminologists to compare the number of gunshots reported to those recorded by ShotSpotter.

Another key area of opportunity for developing your technology expertise is in cybercrime. With the number of people affected by data breaches reaching billions in 2018, this is an area where expertise is in high-demand at all levels of criminal justice, from police officers to federal investigators.

The advantage of criminal justice programs is that they offer extensive knowledge of current systems, along with the option of selecting more technology-focused electives, so that solutions to these problems can be used effectively and ethically. By selecting classes that provide individuals with an understanding of how both crime and criminals function in the twenty-first century, graduates are better prepared to help address these problems at all levels of law enforcement.


Do You Need a Master’s Degree?

One of the key themes of law enforcement and the criminal justice field overall is increasing complexity, which has resulted in higher expectations, especially when considering how much knowledge the average person is expected to have to do their job effectively.

Master’s programs in criminal justice offer a balance of broad knowledge that can be applied to different areas of the field, making them ideal for individuals who want to ensure flexibility for their future. Of course, it is impossible to replicate the skills you get in the field and over time on the job, but you can think of graduate education as another key tool in protecting the communities you serve.

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