Jackie Duchschere started her career in the unsparing world of politics after earning her bachelor’s degree. In her work at a state agency, her problem-solving and people skills were tested almost daily.

She’ll now plug those skills into her new job as a Columbia Heights police officer.

Being an officer these days is as much about brains as it is about brawn as more suburban police chiefs seek out job candidates with four-year degrees and previous professional experience, often in outside fields, including teaching, political science and corporate America.

Minnesota has long led the nation in peace officer standards; it’s the only state to require a two-year degree and licensing. Now, a four-year degree is becoming a more common standard for entry into departments including Columbia Heights, Edina and Burnsville. Many other departments require a four-year degree for promotion.

It’s not a rapid-fire change, but rather an evolution sped up by high unemployment that deepened the candidate pool and gave chiefs more choices. Officer pay and benefits can attract four-year candidates. Edina pays top-level officers $80,000; Columbia Heights pays nearly $75,000.

Nowadays, officers are expected to juggle a variety of tasks and that takes more education, chiefs said. Officers communicate with the public, solve problems, navigate different cultures, use computers, radios and other technology while on the move, and make split-second decisions about use of force with a variety of high-tech tools on their belt. And many of those decisions are recorded by squad car dashboard cameras, officer body cameras and even bystanders with smartphones.

Those higher community expectations and scrutiny are why Columbia Heights Police Chief Scott Nadeau said hiring officers with a four-year degree and some life experience is a top priority.

Still, there is healthy debate in law enforcement, with some chiefs favoring direct experience over pedigree.

Broad skills

Along with Duchschere, Nadeau recently hired a former schoolteacher with a master’s degree. He also has hired one officer who will finish his bachelor’s in business administration next year.

“Officers with education seem to do better with problem solving,” Nadeau said. “You need that breadth of knowledge. You need to know what is the difference between an immigrant and a refugee.”

That’s different from when Nadeau was hired, when chiefs literally sized candidates up, favoring those over 6 feet tall with broad shoulders.

In his inner-ring suburb of 20,000 made up of 16 percent foreign-born, officers are more likely to encounter a confused senior citizen than an armed gunman. During his career in Brooklyn Center and Columbia Heights, Nadeau says he has never had to discharge his gun, but he’s faced some rapid-fire questions from immigrant groups about racial profiling and from residents irked at efforts to stop jaywalking across Central Avenue.

The community problem-solving role for police warrants more education, Nadeau said.

“Officers need to fully understand the problem, provide a thoughtful analysis of alternatives, research best practices and assemble a plan that includes multiple stakeholders and leverages community resources to reduce or eliminate the problem,” he said.

A changing mold

Although her father is an Eden Prairie policeman, Jackie Duchschere says that for a long time “I just had the wrong idea of what you needed to be to be a police officer.” She is 5-foot-4 and describes herself as a bit of a “girlie” girl.

“Even though my dad isn’t this big macho guy, I was completely thinking about the physical aspects of it and I didn’t fit the mold.”

Duchschere, 26, has worked as a Columbia Heights community service officer part time to get her foot in the door. She starts her new job early this year pending background and health assessments.

“My biggest tool will be my ability to communicate with people — be smart and quick on my feet,” she said.

In Edina, Chief Jeff Long said, “We are not just hiring people who want to drive fast and make arrests. We are hiring people who want to get out in the community and participate. We really focus on candidates who have prior life experience coming in.”

Some of Long’s recent hires include two Target corporate employees and a YMCA executive. Many of these professionals are taking pay cuts to go into policing, he said.

Long, who will become Lakeville’s police chief this month, said that hiring practices started to change about a decade ago but that there’s been a big push in the last five years. It’s easy to be selective. His department had 400 applicants for their last job opening.

Broadening role

More education also coincides with greater expectations for police from residents and city officials. Two years ago, for example, Edina police started overseeing the city’s community health department, which handles pool inspections and hoarding investigations, Long said.

“That is the trend in law enforcement. People have that expectation that it’s not just cops showing up. It’s an entry into the social services arena,” Long said. “We want to do more social work when we are on the street. We call an advocacy agency every time we go in on a suspected domestic abuse case.”

Even conventional police work takes more education.

“You used to do a photo lineup, get the guy ID’d and you were done,” Long said. “Now you need DNA, a forensic trail, video and accounting.”

Burnsville Police started requiring a four-year degree in 1969. They relaxed the policy briefly in the late 1980s because of a thin candidate pool, but Chief Eric Gieseke said he firmly enforces it today.

“The community wants a professional agency and they expect us to be highly trained and highly educated,” Gieseke said. “The job has become more complex. You introduce technology. The laws are ever-changing and expectations in the community have not declined.”

Gieseke said larger urban departments, which hire more officers, may not have the luxury of considering only candidates with four-year degrees.

The Minnesota Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training, or POST Board, licenses officers. Its executive director, Neil Melton, said the board doesn’t track the number of officers with two-year versus four-year degrees but said the trend in some departments is to hire and promote officers with more education.

Debate about what’s needed

There is a back-and-forth in the law enforcement community about what qualifications predict a good officer. Maple Grove Police Chief David Jess said he values education but doesn’t require a four-year degree.

“I like to leave it open because there are plenty of people with two-year degrees that are good police officers,” he said.

Jess said he’s found experience to be a better indicator of success than education alone. He favors a candidate who has worked as a reserve officer or in a smaller department. He recalls once interviewing a highly educated candidate with no law enforcement experience who said his goal was to become the department’s forensic psychologist — a position that doesn’t exist.

“There was a total disconnect with the type of work we do,” Jess said.

Once in the door, many officers with two-year degrees utilize the city’s tuition assistance program to earn their bachelor’s degree.

The Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office, which provides police services for several north suburbs, requires only a two-year degree, but a four-year one gives candidates an edge, said spokesman Randy Gustafson.

“We are held to a higher public scrutiny level. You need people who are able to meet that public demand and the demands of technology,” Gustafson said.

Gustafson said today’s squad cars are like “driving a high-tech computer.”

He also noted that, for the first time this past year, the sheriff’s department put its new hires through 40 weeks of training and department shadowing.

“It’s a lot of money and you want to make certain you have a really good candidate who makes it through. … You can always teach specific competencies. You can’t teach character.”