Are most academic departments, schools, and colleges of Criminology or Criminal Justice cop shops?

Many academic departments (schools and colleges) of Criminology and Criminal Justice, at least in the United States, are often disparagingly called “cop shops.” What does this mean? This label is often affixed to academic units that are disproportionately staffed by instructors and professors who are former criminal justice practitioners (here after practitioners), and there is a belief that this situation has a negative effect on pedagogy, scholarship, and organizational culture. Let’s examine this claim a little more closely.

Although learned organizations like the American Society of Criminology and the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences ask their members to indicate where they work and their highest level of education, there is no publicly available data base that contains data about the careers or professional backgrounds of individuals who work as criminology and criminal justice instructors or professors.

Also, given the frequency of the cop shop complaint, and with the exception of a scholarly article by Garner and Lyons (2016), and Johnson’s edited book on correctional professionals (2012), that have transitioned to academic jobs, it’s rather perplexing that hardly any scholarship has been produced that examines this question.

So much of what follows is impressionistic.

My history

Before diving deeper into answering this question, and in the spirit of full disclosure, many years ago, I worked close to four years in a correctional facility, and only a handful of the full-time faculty in the criminology/criminal justice departments I have worked for have had criminal justice practitioner experience. More typically, and this situation exists throughout the United States, is that adjuncts or part-timers are current or former practitioners (many with Masters degrees only).

That being said, several years ago, when I was applying for assistant professor jobs, some of the departments of criminology/criminal justice where I interviewed at, most of my colleagues and I would probably call cop shops. Although some of the faculty had doctorates in Criminology/Criminal Justice or allied fields, many of the full-time instructional staff appeared to have earned their PhDs in the field of education. Moreover, the full-time faculty produced very few academic publications. The departments, schools, or colleges of criminal justice that are called cop shops rarely had a PhD program, but more than likely a terminal master’s degree.

Understanding nuance

In reality there are probably a bunch of different models or mixes with respect to the percentage of full-time faculty who have criminal justice practitioner experience and its effect on pedagogy, scholarship and organizational culture. And thus, one might (if suitably motivated) develop a heuristic to rank departments on how much of a cop shop they are. Alternatively, some classes lend themselves better than others to being taught by former practitioners (e.g., Intro to Policing, or Intro to Corrections, Courts, Criminal Law, etc.), whereas others (e.g., Criminological Theory, Research Methods, etc.) might best be tackled better by individuals with traditional doctorates.

Readers of this piece must also keep in mind that, there are plenty of ex-practitioners (at all employment levels) who work in departments, schools and colleges of criminal justice, that are on top of the scholarly literature and have, teach and conduct research that is nuanced and thoughtful, and sometimes more so than some of their liberal and critical colleagues. They may even be better academic citizens then the majority of the people in their home department.



Although Community Colleges seem to have more current and former practitioners working as instructors than universities, there are about four interrelated reasons why a department may have an abundance of individuals teaching with practitioner experience.

Size of Department

To begin with although anomalies exist, in principle, the larger the department the greater the possibility that there will be one or more instructors/professors who have criminal justice practitioner experience.

Historical legacy  

Some of the cop shop legacy more than likely was aided and abetted by the United States Department of Justice Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (1968-1982) funding criminal justice practitioners and giving them grants or loans to pursue masters and doctorates. And, with each new hire, faculty working in criminology/criminal justice academic units, or the senior leadership at those universities had higher expectations, often demanding publications surpassing those of any single faculty member and occasionally exceeding the entire instructional staff combined. As a result, those of us who were hired heard stories of hostile work environments. A clash of cultures so to speak.

The power of geographic location

The cop shop designation is not only mediated by size of department, and perhaps reputation, but the proclivity for this type of department may also be based on geographic location. Some criminology/criminal justice instructors may not want to live in a particular city or region of the country. Why? The institutions of higher education located there may pay poorly, the cost of living may be outrageous, it’s a tough place to raise a family, etc. And thus, more traditional scholars/instructors don’t want to live or work there. Thus, the employment pool in these geographic locations may consist of a disproportionate number of practitioners.

Supply and demand

For one reason or another many practitioners earn not just bachelor degrees, but masters and doctorates. They do this in a variety of fields beyond criminology and criminal justice and their reasons for earning these degrees cover a wide spectrum of reasons. Some of them use their degree as the price of admission to teaching at a community college or university.

It may be tough to recruit someone with a Ph.D. to a particular city or region in the country so the former chief of police of a small town that earned an EDD gets the position because few qualified candidates want to work there.


Overall, few scholars, instructors or professors would deny that practical experience is irrelevant to pedagogy in the field of criminology/criminal justice. There is also the argument that instruction in any the field, especially where students are likely to become practitioners, can more realistic if it is delivered by those who have worked in that profession

Meanwhile there is a hope that, despite its possible entertainment value, that instruction is not dominated by anecdotal experiences (i.e., war stories and discussions on the best way to put handcuffs on suspects), but also encourages a deep level balanced discussion of the empirical evidence accumulated in the field of criminology/criminal justice.

Also, important to keep in mind is that there is also an underlying belief that the “lived experience” better informs an instructor’s ability to make sense of the empirical knowledge of the profession.

One more thing. Sometimes the tendency to point out that a department is a cop shop might derive from an “elitist” point of view. Those doing the labelling may believe that former practitioners are too basic (or conservative) in what they consider to be the important issues in the field of criminology/criminal justice, and that instructors with doctorates in Criminology/Criminology (and a bunch of scholarly publications to their name) have not been tainted by this practitioner experience. Interaction with former practitioners, depending on the level of interaction, might be hostile.

Then again, it’s quite possible that these environments are very supportive and that your department members are friendly, super engaged with students, the subject matter, and the profession.

Here is the rub

If a department of Criminology/Criminal Justice is willing to hire former law enforcement, correctional, and probation officers and administrators, not to mention criminal lawyers, then it should also be open to employing formerly incarcerated individuals with Ph.D.’s. I’m not suggesting that this will be a panacea or some magic bullet towards inclusivity of different voices into the C/CJ curriculum, but it does provide an alternative to the current ethos. This is perhaps why  an increasing number of criminology/criminal justice departments are looking for instructors who specialize in convict criminology.

For my colleagues without practitioner experience, who get jobs in cop shop departments, it’s quite possible that these environments are supportive and that their department members are super engaged with students, the subject matter and the profession. Thus, there is no need to make peace with fellow former practitioner instructors in their academic units. But if interactions with these individuals is hostile, then the experience may be very difficult. It also depends how much interaction they have with these  your face they are.

Unfortunately, the cop shop designation has dissuaded some individuals who want to earn a doctorate from doing it in criminology/criminal justice, and it has turned off a  fair share of others in possession of a doctorate from working for these types of organizational units, prefer them to apply to an take jobs in departments with allied fields (e.g., Sociology, Political Science, Public Policy, etc.).

In the end, fit is important and although fluid, the organizational culture should not be dismissed.

All this to say that students can get a respectable education in cop shop departments, and criminologists can have a satisfactory career in one of these places, but it’s important for one to be aware of the inner dynamics of what is going on, and the possible explanations for such.


Photographer: David Merrett

Title: NYPD