For this installment of the newsletter we caught up with Timothy Dixon, a graduate student in the Public Safety Leadership and Administration program. He is currently working as a law instructor for the Baltimore Police Department. He talked about his job, his experience as a student, and how much everything has changed for him during the pandemic. He also shared his views on the role of law enforcement and the difficulties of policing at this turbulent point in history.
Tianying: Hi, Tim. Thank you for your time. I know you’re working while taking classes with the PLA program. What is your current job?
Tim: I’m a law instructor for the Baltimore Police Department (BPD). I teach law to police recruits and to current active officers. We call it the continuing education unit. There's entry level law, which consists of people who are in the police academy, who are becoming police officers. And then there's the continuing education people who are currently sworn members, commanders, investigators and detectives. I teach all of them law, mostly continuing education though I do sometimes teach entry-level. It’s the veteran officers that I spend more time teaching.
Tianying: I understand you were a police officer before becoming a law instructor, could you tell me more about this career transformation?
Tim: I was a police lieutenant in Baltimore City. I went to law school while working at BPD, and after that, I passed the bar. Then I went to the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office to practice law as a prosecutor. I left there, and went into private practice. I've been practicing law for almost 20 years combined.
Tianying: And now you’re an instructor and a student at the same time. That's impressive! What is your academic goal?
Tim: My academic goal is to acquire a Master's degree in Public Safety and Leadership Administration. Since I've been practicing law for 20 years, I have been removed from law enforcement in some ways. I've been able to observe it from a legal standpoint and previously from a practical standpoint as a sworn member. But, I thought that this degree would help update me on some of the things that I may not have been able to observe for the last 20 years while practicing law. I'm hoping the program can provide some insight into that.
Tianying: Do you think our program can help you to achieve that goal?
Tim: I think so. This is the first semester, and I've only had a couple of classes, but it seems to be meeting my expectations. I thought the coursework was interesting. It made me think and organize my thoughts. I tried not to come into the program with preconceived notions. I haven't been [completely] removed from law enforcement. I’ve been representing police officers probably most of my legal career, but the day to day practicing of policing is something I felt I needed to be updated on. I consider myself a law enforcement expert as well as a legal expert, but I thought this program could reaffirm and clarify my previous understanding of police practices, and even give me some insights into things I might be missing.
Tianying: I’m curious. How have PLA courses helped you with your daily work?
Tim: I teach search, seize and arrest for BPD, and try to answer officers’ questions. I think the coursework here enhanced my ability to do that, particularly the Ethics in Criminal Justice class. It makes you think, because law is one thing, but ethics is another. The Ethics class helped me articulate that everything a law enforcement officer may be able to legally do, is not always the ethically sound thing to do, and therefore, it’s not always best for the organization or the people it serves. The Public Image Management course made me think about why we have some policies. While legally, some actions may be permissible and are within policy, there is a public image goal that is integral to the public having confidence in the agency. I've enjoyed it. I found the coursework interesting in that I could find ways to apply it day to day, even in teaching law.
Tianying: Let’s talk a little bit about the pandemic. How has the pandemic affected your daily life?
Tim: Probably the same as everyone else. I usually teach in person, and I don't just lecture. Our program actually is designed to have group discussions and group participation. Having that day to day and personal interaction is challenging, because of COVID. Everyone has a mask on. So a lot of times when people are expressing their opinions, their answers, and their concerns, you don't get that personal inflection. Normally, if I said something emphatically, you might draw an inference from it or come to some sort of determination based on how I'm saying it. You can't do that with a mask.
Police officers aren't like undergraduate students. They're kind of like graduate students, but in a different way. They are experienced practitioners of criminal and constitutional law. There's no hand raising. If they know the answer, they’ll blurt it out, and with the mask on, you don't know who did it. Often you are forced to ask “Who said that?” Then you can have a direct conversation. [Wearing masks] kind of slows you down a little bit. And then of course there's the health concerns. I teach the first responders, so you know there's always that concern that last night they were out working the street and someone could have been exposed [to the virus]. I am sure all of the members in class think about it. But, then again, I could have been exposed too, while picking up my water at Starbucks, so that's always in the back of your mind. COVID is on everyone’s mind. That's the challenge.
Tianying: So, it sounds like you prefer the PLA classes being online?
Tim: For me, [the online classes] work better. I've taught over zoom, go to church over zoom, and have family meetings over zoom, so I don't mind [the online setting], and it also saves travel time, which I think is really valuable to people who are working. I would not have gotten into the program if I had to drive from Baltimore County, or Baltimore City to College Park. It just wouldn't have been feasible or practical.
Tianying: I want to circle back to the pandemic. How do you think it has changed policing? Has the pandemic made policing more difficult?
Tim: Well, I guess I look at it in two different ways. I look at it from a police officer’s standpoint and also from a lawyer’s standpoint. Policing is certainly more difficult. The health safety risks to law enforcement officers, from field interviews to initiating arrests, are all higher because of the pandemic. On the other hand, the practical aspects of policing, for example, investigating crimes has changed. Everyone has a mask on. How do you identify suspects to crimes? How reliable is that [identification] with everyone having a mask on? So, investigating crimes is just far more difficult. In addition to that, many crimes probably aren't being investigated because the health care issue makes it far riskier to do things like patrol. Also, many people aren't being prosecuted for crimes that have been committed because of the limitations on corrections and detention centers as well as the courts. Some people aren't being arrested and prosecuted because of the limitations in the criminal justice system. Some nuisance and non-serious crimes cannot be effectively enforced because of COVID. When's the last time you saw police pull someone over and give them a ticket for a traffic violation? COVID has hampered all of us and public safety has been affected as well. So, what's going to happen after this pandemic? I'm curious how that's going to work.
Tianying: Let me ask you one last question: What do you think is the most important thing police can do to make the world safer?
Tim: I think that question has a relative answer. When we talk about making the world safer, there's the public safety aspect of crime, terrorism, and things that make everyday people feel unsafe. I think that's always been a real challenge, and I don't have a short answer to it. But I definitely think that the need for law enforcement professionals is greater and greater every year, because the challenges are greater. We not only have a public health crisis going on, we are seeing a rise in extremists. We are seeing a rise in foreign extremists in places like Iran and the Middle East, but we also see a rise in domestic extremists and white nationalism -- particularly in the last four years -- which hasn’t been addressed; nor has it been condemned by some of our leaders. Those are challenges to law enforcement. Also, some of the people who promote the [white nationalist] and domestic terrorist agenda are in law enforcement, so that's an ethical challenge as well as a law enforcement challenge. How can you get people working in positions of public trust, who have racist ideas, or anti-immigrant, or have problems with people because of a gender identity or sexual orientation? So there are ethical and legal challenges within law enforcement, but police agencies all over the country are reforming, and they should, and they must. [Reforms] have been a long time coming, but the question is, what are the reforms going to be? We saw protests in the summer with George Floyd, Brionna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. So, it makes you think, what reforms will actually happen? We all can name many reforms that are necessary, but what does the public really want to see happen? Some people want to get rid of qualified immunity, a legal defense for police officers. I don't think that's the right answer, because no one would want to do the job [without qualified immunity]. On the other hand, no-knock warrants, I think they are overused. The most important thing, other than having frank discussions about law enforcement and educating citizens about the role of law enforcement in our society, is educating law enforcement officers about their role--legally and ethically. There's still a hunter mentality, and an occupying force mentality in some law enforcement agencies, and I don't think that's what most law enforcement professionals want. I think that they just want to do their jobs, but I also think educating them about what their jobs specifically are is a challenge. But, I do have confidence in law enforcement meeting those challenges.
A few weeks ago, I took the opportunity to conduct a virtual interview with John Ferinde, a graduate student pursuing a professional master's degree in Public Safety Leadership and Administration. John spoke candidly about his experience in the PLA program and how well he thinks the Trump administration has handled the pandemic.
Tianying: Hi John. Let me start by asking you about your current job.
John: I am the Lieutenant in charge of the Anti-corruption Unit for the Baltimore Police Department.
Tianying: Can you describe your work?
John: We handle internal affairs cases that are criminal in nature. If an officer commits a crime, we investigate that and we also do proactive integrity testing, which involves presenting police with situations and then evaluating them based on how they respond. We police the police. Every major case of corruption that newspapers report, this unit is quietly behind the scenes investigating. Other agencies typically receive credit but it is the Anti-corruption Unit that is doing the work.
Tianying: What are your academic goals?
John: I just finished my master’s program with UMGC, and I was enjoying it, so I decided to keep going. First, I looked at doctoral programs, but...it was just overwhelming to look at, so I kind of started looking around for different programs to go into and found that the University of Maryland is the highest ranked program for criminal justice in the United States. I was looking into the University of Maryland programs, and then coincidentally received an email about the PLA program, so it was fate. But as far as my academic goals, I want to get a second master’s degree.
Tianying: Well, what are your academic interests?
John: I’ve been in the police department for 23 years, and I enjoy doing work in criminal justice. Doing this program in “Leadership and Public Safety” kind of fits that interest. My master’s degree is in Emergency Management, I didn’t mind doing Emergency Management, but I found that every time I had an assignment or wrote a paper, I’d always do it on the police side of management. I guess you could say I have an academic interest in policing.
Tianying: I hear you’re taking Dr. Andrist’s ethics class. Is that right?
Tianying: What do you think about it?
John: I like it. It’s always interesting to learn about ethics. I get what he’s doing: getting in the face of it and everything and, you know, going back to Aristotle. I even called him at one point and was just like, “My head is swimming over all this stuff”, because you know, I’m used to the everyday kind of applications of ethical issues that police face. So, when we’re talking about Socrates, I can leave that for more practical topics, but I also understand why we need the base information.
Tianying: Would you say the online format of the PLA classes is convenient for you?
John: Yes! I got my bachelor’s degree and my master’s degree from UMGC, and being an online student is, I mean, honestly the only way to do it, as far as I’m concerned. With my other responsibilities, including my wife and my kids, and all that kind of stuff...In an online program, I can simply do the work when I need to do it. To balance work, family and school being online allows me to do school work when it's convenient for me without affecting other parts of my life.
Tianying: How do you balance your work and study?
John: I do balance things. Work, obviously, it’s got to come first for me because it pays all the bills. I work my normal work hours, and spend time with family, and then I start working on school. On Sunday, I’ll spend all day just doing school. It is super helpful when the Professor has all the assignments in the class ready well in advance of the deadline, so I can either work ahead or schedule my life with completing assignments in mind.
Tianying: What do you think is the most important ethical issue facing police at the present time?
John: Racial discrimination is a huge deal, within police work right now. That’s where we have to probably get better. It’s difficult because of the past. Policies in the past. They were not necessarily racist policies meaning that police attempting to fight crime did not necessarily mean to be racist. They were policies that were enacted that had a detrimental effect on low-income and People of Color, if that makes sense. Like, the person who came up with the policy wasn’t thinking about race but the policy had an extreme effect on minority communities. So in policing right now, it’s kind of, you know, coming out of that difficult time. It’s all about community policing now. However, part of the problem is that there is no real set definition of community policing. I’m sure on the academic side there is, but among police, there’s just, you know, “How do police serve their community?” Each segment of the community has different needs and police are being asked to decipher those needs and help those communities navigate conflict. It is difficult for officers who are being asked to do everything for everyone. Tianying: From an emergency management perspective, what do you think people working on public policy can do to help improve public safety during this pandemic?
John: So, part of the problem with the pandemic is that the federal government, specifically the Trump administration, has politicized it, though the pandemic is not a Democrat or Republican issue. It’s a public health issue. The policies should be of a public health nature. It should be, you know, “What can we do to stop this disease?” which means shutting down large parts of our society. This has a terrible economic impact, but we’re now at 240,000 people dead. It’s going to double, if we don’t act in a responsible manner. So I think the policies coming out of any government should be that of closing things down in order to prevent events that spread the disease. I’m not trying to politicize the Trump administration, but the lack of desire to wear masks and stuff like that, it just doesn’t make any sense. You’re just causing other people to get sick. And, you know, the 20-year-old that doesn’t get sick doesn’t really feel the symptoms of COVID too bad are spreading the illness to people who are vulnerable. The nation's hospital system is the best in the world and treats millions of people a year; however, the hospitals can not handle an influx of critical care patients at the magnitude that COVID is causing. That has always been the issue with this pandemic. Doctors and Nurses can treat COVID but they can not treat COVID while treating all the other illnesses at the same time. COVID is overwhelming the system including first responders. In a public health sense, politicizing an illness is just irresponsible.
The PLA program is happy to count Leea Thornton as one of our new graduate students. In a recent, socially distant interview, Leea told us she works as a paralegal and public servant in the federal government, where she researches and reviews housing policies, specifically those which provide grant funding for various housing programs. Leea is clearly passionate about her work and shared her view that providing housing is one of the most important things one can do to make the world a better place because housing is the foundation for human flourishing. As she explained, if children are exposed to uninhabitable living conditions, they are susceptible to a wide range of health conditions, all of which act as barriers to their education.
As a graduate student, Leea is interested in honing her skills in critical thinking. Her academic interests include history, government, and a variety of issues related to criminology and criminal justice. She also enjoys music, design, and art history. Leea added that she is currently enjoying her class on Public Image Management and Policy Solutions and believes the course is helping her to become a better leader. More than just interesting coursework, Leea finds the class to be loaded with practical information that she can apply on a daily basis. She also feels that the online format of the PLA program has proven to be incredibly convenient. She has more control over her schedule, and she is able to balance the demands of her job with those of her class.
When asked about her plans for the future, Leea told us that once she has completed her degree in the PLA program, she plans to pursue a Ph.D in the field of criminology and criminal justice.
Drop by for our upcoming information session about the Professional Master's program in Public Safety Leadership and Administration (PLA), developed jointly by the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences and the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. The session will be hosted by the program director, Lester Andrist, and will take place on September 22, 2020 from 4pm to 5pm. There will be a 15-minute presentation followed by a Q&A session. Register today!
To overcome racism in the criminal justice system, some envision employing artificial intelligence and other technical tools. However, as sociologist Nicol Turner-Lee warns, if we're not careful, these new tools may end up reinforcing the very racial disparities they were purportedly designed to eliminate.
In this webinar program director, Dr. Lester Andrist, moderates a discussion with Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown of the Raleigh Police Department and Director John Monaghan of All Aces, Inc. Both panelists offer insights born from experience on questions such as how law enforcement can play a role eliminating institutionalized racism, how to build trust within communities of color, and how to counter the problem of implicit bias.