Choose an Online Program for a Law Enforcement Career in 2018

David Poulin Jr. desired an online master’s degree program that would allow him to advance his law enforcement career. He soon came across the online master’s in law enforcement and public safety leadership at the University of San Diego.

The 2017 grad says he chose this university primarily for its reputation. For him, the online format was also important, since he planned to balance his education with a full-time job and family responsibilities.

Compared with some broader criminal justice degrees, he says, this program “actually weighs in on the immediate and the most critical issues facing today’s law enforcement.”

Prospective undergraduate and graduate online students have many decisions to make – including the type of credential they pursue. Poulin, a detective at the Salinas Police Department, is also considering eventually teaching law enforcement courses at a college or university. A master’s will enable him to do that, says the 46-year-old, who adds that he has taken on additional responsibilities at his job since graduating earlier this year.

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For those hoping to launch or accelerate a law enforcement career, online education offers flexibility in both program types and scheduling, which experts say is beneficial for police officers and others in the field who work shifts around the clock. When looking into different, relevant online options while assessing your career goals, here are four to consider.

• Massive open online courses: MOOCs are online classes – which companies often create in collaboration with universities – that are generally available for free for anyone with internet. They typically include recordings of professors’ lectures.

Through Coursera and edX, two main MOOC providers in the U.S., those who pay for MOOCs may receive a certificate of completion, typically ranging from $30 to $150 per course, after completing required assignments along with a capstone project or exam.

MOOCs can be a good option for those looking to learn more about law enforcement and criminal justice at a foundational level or to gain a basic overview of a more specialized area or concept, experts say. Coursera, for example, offers an introduction to international criminal law MOOC with Case Western Reserve University; edX has one on the psychology of criminal justice with the University of Queensland in Australia.

But taking this route typically won’t hold as much weight with employers compared with more recognized credentials, such as degrees, experts say.

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• Other free and low-cost online training: Those pursuing or already in the field have many other online law enforcement training options and resources to choose from. Examples of sites that provide or list online courses include Virtual Academy,, the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the National Institute of Justice.

“There are new problems that come up all the time, and here we can show you a quick way to solve it in addition to what you already have in your toolbox,” says Chuck Russo, program director and professor of criminal justice for the for-profit American Public University System who has worked for four decades in law enforcement.

Certain websites, such as PoliceOne Academy, also offer courses that current law enforcement personnel can use to earn continuing education units and complete annual training requirements. State-specific requirements vary, and Russo says some states also offer their own online courses for such requirements.

• Certificate programs: Undergraduate and graduate online certificates are another option. Arizona State University’s ASU Online, for example, offers a focused graduate certificate in law enforcement administration.

Certificates allow students to concentrate in an interest area, ranging from corrections to homeland security, says Rebecca Loftus, lecturer and academic program manager at ASU’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice.

At some law enforcement agencies, a certificate may be sufficient for a promotion, especially if the individual already has relevant experience, though this will vary, says Russo. Experts say certificates generally require students to spend less time and money compared with a degree.

And should a student decide to pursue a full degree, at many universities they may apply the certificate credit hours directly toward it, Russo says.

[Explore how to choose between an online graduate certificate and degree.]

• Online degree programs: Prospective students set on pursuing a degree will also need to decide whether a bachelor’s or master’s in criminal justice will satisfy their needs or whether a more specialized online degree is the route to go.

The American Public University System, for instance, offers online degrees in criminal justice, homeland security, intelligence studies and emergency and disaster management. Russo says a criminal justice degree is typically a good choice for those looking to first enter the field, but recommends those already in law enforcement to consider more specialized degrees, since they already have experience.

Danny Parker, executive vice president and provost at Anderson University in South Carolina, likewise advises prospective students to research whether the classes are live, self-paced or both and to ask about the level of faculty support they’ll receive before choosing a program.