by Don Perkins
The criminal justice field has gone mainstream. Hit TV shows like Law & Order, Forensic Files, and CSI combine hard-boiled detective work with the latest in high-tech forensic science. You might say prime time favors police work.
But what about in the real world? "TV crime is not reality," says Dale Brooker, head of the criminal justice program, where sociology and social work play an important role in educating students in that major. Overall, the emphasis on integrating disciplines distinguishes the Saint Joseph's major, according to Brooker. "We're the only program I know that requires students to take a social work field practicum," he notes.
There's a difference, he says, between a degree in criminal justice and criminology. "The former is more practically based, while the latter is theoretically based with a research focus," explains Dr. Brooker, who feels his sociology background is part of the reason he was selected to head Saint Joseph's program.
Cops are no longer simply law enforcement professionals these days, especially in urban areas. Portland deputy police chief Joseph Loughlin '75 has been in law enforcement for over 20 years. Saint Joseph's students often intern at his department. Loughlin says demographics in his city are changing quickly - some 70 languages are spoken at Portland High School - and that the demands of a police officer are increasing. "By default, police have become social service agents. We're often the first public agency to interact with homeless, mentally ill and immigrant populations, says Loughlin." Loughlin says his officers are put through crisis intervention training to de-escalate situations.
Raymond Ruby '05 of Portland, Maine, interned with the Portland police as a student and is now a full-time officer with that department. The 25-year-old says he uses his sociology skills all the time. As a student, he remembers his professor telling him, "If you want to simply learn how to rope-off a crime scene, then this program's not for you." Ruby recalls taking a large number of sociology classes. "I think it's beneficial because you learn about economic and social structures; you understand people far better. Actual criminal law is a small part of this job," he says.
Professor Brooker says the main focus of the major is providing graduates with a "tool kit" of skills, including a foreign language requirement. (Latin, which Brooker says is embedded in legal terms, is actively encouraged.) "That tool kit involves understanding research that exists regarding organizational aspects of law enforcement and police officer stress," says Brooker. Having students understand that gives them more than what they might get at the Maine State Police Academy."
This philosophy resonates loud and clear with another southern Maine police chief, Westbrook's Bill Baker. By default, it's been a trend, Baker says, for law enforcement to hire folks with an often-limited skill set. When Baker interviews potential officers for positions, the traditional nuts-and-bolts police skills are often secondary concerns. Baker likes the fact Saint Joseph's focuses on the student as a person. "I'm less interested in their technical skills or trainability," says Baker. "I'm more concerned with what kind of person they are and what upbringing they had. It's hard to hire a 22-year-old narrow-minded bully, give them a badge and a gun and some authority. St. Joe's has produced some quality individuals who are making a difference in this community."
One way students have been making a difference is through research and community surveys, practices that police departments often can't afford. Professor Brooker feels this work, where police departments get feedback from the community, is a valuable education and introduction to the public side of police work for students. As they survey community members about their attitudes and perceptions of the police, they get a sense of how to serve the community better.
Last year, one student, Brian Olson '09 of Rowley, Mass., compiled information for Chief Baker about how Westbrook residents were feeling about their police department. Brooker says the exercise of social research and compiling statistics helps build a student's comprehensive tool kit.
Being a cop on the beat is just one option open to students of the major. Brooker also encourages prospects to go on to graduate school, which can be a big plus for getting jobs at the federal level. Amanda Coburn '08 of Salem Township, Maine, is enrolled at Western New England College School of Law in Massachusetts. During her time at Saint Joseph's, she interned at Pine Tree Legal Assistance in her senior year and is looking forward to beginning her law practice in 2012.
Stacy Burton '10 of Westbrook, Maine, has done survey and statistics projects in both Portland and her hometown, and also is going to be interning as a court recorder for the city of Portland. She wants to work as an officer for the South Portland Police Department upon graduation, but ultimately work for the Drug Enforcement Agency or the FBI. Burton is drawn to the fact that criminal justice is a fast-paced field. She says a former high school swim coach who was a Portland police officer, drew her to the field by telling stories of his work on the night shift. "It just clicked for me," she says. "I just knew that's what I wanted to do the rest of my life."
Real life has a hard time living up to the portrayals on television. For instance, 95 percent of police cases are typically plea-bargained and never see a courtroom. South Portland's police chief Ed Googins thinks television is so fascinated with criminal justice because of the field's inherent intrigue coupled with technological advances that add spice. Where a case would have been dead in the water before, modern forensic science leads to fascinating conclusions ripe for evermore creative TV scripts.
But far from those scripts, the real world awaits for the Saint Joseph's graduates who bring a broad perspective to complex roles and embody the values they learned here.
Don Perkins is a freelance writer living in Raymond, Maine.