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.