DENTON (UNT), Texas – Erick Bohannon has served nearly 24 years with the Amarillo Police Department as a patrol officer, junior detective, shift supervisor, field commander, commander of narcotics and SWAT and, since 2011, commander of the special crimes unit, obtaining the rank of lieutenant.
Bohannon has a bachelor's degree in administrative services, but he had never taken a university-level course in criminal justice before August 2015. That month, he started the online master's degree program offered by the University of North Texas' Department of Criminal Justice. The degree, which recently tied for 18th in the nation in the U.S. News & World Report's rankings of online master's programs, is designed for working law enforcement and correctional officers -- some of whom, like Bohannon, are considering a second career of teaching after retirement.
Bohannon said the dean of criminal justice at West Texas A&M University in Canyon encouraged him to get his master's degree for an adjunct teaching position. Now he is learning concepts that is helping him in his career.
"The real world application to what I've learned has already begun. I never did a research project before I took a research and methodologies class, and now I'm able to put together a better package of ideas to present to the chief of police and city manager," Bohannon said.
Eric Fritsch, chair of UNT's Department of Criminal Justice, said that although 99 percent of law enforcement agencies do not require students to have either a bachelor's or a master's degree in criminal justice to be hired, many agencies do require officers to have degrees before they can become supervisors, and federal agencies, such as the FBI, require at least a bachelor's degree for hiring.
"The larger the department, the more likely it will have higher education requirements -- at least for supervisors," Fritsch said. "But with shift work, going to college can be a problem. The hours you work may change during the middle of the semester, and so you may not be able to keep taking the same class."
This fall semester, the UNT Department of Criminal Justice added to its online degree programs when it began a bachelor's completion program in criminal justice. Students in the program may apply up to 60 hours of credit earned from an associate's degree toward the bachelor's degree, then complete the rest of the required courses online. It is the only bachelor's degree completion program in criminal justice offered at a Texas college or university.
Fritsch said he originally thought the degree would be targeted to students at community colleges in rural areas that are not located near a four-year university offering a criminal justice degree. But he soon learned that students at community colleges in Dallas and Fort Worth were also interested in the degree, particularly if they were already working in law enforcement.
"I've met many police officers who want to earn four-year degrees, but they haven't because of family responsibilities. They can't spend time traveling to Denton and back for class," Fritsch said. "Online courses will be convenient for them."
Angelica Morrow commuted from Tarrant County to Denton to earn her bachelor's degree in criminal justice from UNT. But now that she's a community supervision officer with the Tarrant County Community Supervision Corrections Department, and mother of a 5-year-old daughter, enrolling in UNT's online master's degree program last fall was right for her. After receiving her degree in 2017, she plans to apply to the FBI Academy, which favors applicants with graduate education.
"In my master's classes, I've received insight on why crimes happen. It's digging more into theory," she said.
Fritsch said his department's faculty are dedicated to advancing the careers of working professionals.
"The Department of Criminal Justice is continuing to grow as a leader in developing high quality internet and web-based instruction and to increasing the use of new and innovative technology in the delivery of its instructional programs," he said.