Building interest in criminal justice

The critical lens under which law enforcement has been viewed during the past few years since the George Floyd murder and resulting racial reckoning has contributed to lower enrollments in criminal justice programs at some community colleges. But other two-year colleges have seen steady or even increasing enrollments in those programs, thanks in part to staying flexible in the courses offered and how they are offered.

Oakton College, with campuses in Des Plaines and Skokie, Illinois, has seen unduplicated enrollment in its law enforcement and criminal justice program swell from 230 in the 2018-19 school year to 405 in 2021-22, according to James Humenik, chair and associate professor, and a 27-year veteran of the Frankfort, Illinois, Police Department. He sees several reasons for that increase in enrollment: Oakton has created 10 new online courses in the past five years and started offering courses in eight-week formats in addition to the traditional 16, both of which have helped students work around employment, family-related and any other life responsibilities.

This article is the second of a two-part series that examines criminal justice programs at community colleges. Here’s the first article.

The college also has created an associate of arts pathway in addition to the associate of applied science in law enforcement and criminal justice, as well as 18-credit certificate programs in both private security guard training and in forensics, Humenik says. Next to come is a five-credit drone program, set to start next spring.

“That will have a huge impact on our enrollment,” he predicts. “We’re always looking at our curriculum and making sure it’s relevant to industry standards. We realized many departments are going to the use of drones — so let’s get future officers certified as drone operators, so they can bring that [skill set] to their potential future departments.”

Associate professor Louis Martinez adds that Oakton will be one of the few colleges in the state operating such a program.

“We’ve been getting a lot of positive feedback,” he says. “We expect the enrollment will be high in those courses.”

In addition, Oakton has created a multidisciplinary certificate in mental health and crisis response for public safety, which teaches students to aid those facing mental health and/or drug-related issues, Humenik says. Through a joint effort with Oakton’s human services and substance abuse counseling department, the college has awarded the certificate to the first seven officers from a local police department.

Mastering ‘verbal judo’

Undergirding all of Oakton’s programming is an attempt to understand the negativity currently directed toward law enforcement and turn it in a constructive direction, Humenik says.

“We teach to the foundation of procedural justice, positive interactions and fairness to those we serve,” he says. “When people deal with police, it’s usually not on their best days. … We teach discretion, we teach verbal judo — how to properly talk to citizens and gain their compliance” without escalating the situation.

Oakton’s program draws from the wisdom of those who have worked in the field, not only as police officers but attorneys, judges and elsewhere in the criminal justice sector, Martinez says.

“That brings a different perspective to students,” he says. “They can get a real-life view of what actually happens in the criminal justice system, and how each [type of] professional is required to interact.”

Humenik says the college will continue to assess how to keep the program relevant to industry standards, in part with help from an advisory committee comprised of practitioners.

“That’s how the drone program came about,” he says. “We want to keep building. We want to keep the ball rolling.”

Less interest in corrections officer training

The Criminal Justice Institute at Palm Beach State College has seen growth in most of its programs, with one exception. For example, the school’s Law Enforcement Officer Basic Recruit Academy has enjoyed higher enrollment, with typically two classes per semester and an uptick in police agency sponsorships. However, the Corrections Officer Basic Recruit Academy has seen a downward shift, and several efforts are underway to boost that enrollment.

Vincent Morton, director of the Criminal Justice Institute, says the law enforcement officer program has stayed strong by listening to what the chiefs of its 26 local law enforcement agencies want from training centers and recruits. In addition to ensuring a practical congruence between curriculum and needed skills, that effort “builds an intangible relationship and rapport for them to continuously send us their recruits,” he says.

Law enforcement officer recruits of Palm Beach State College’s Criminal Justice Institute performing a daily flag-raising ceremony at the college’s Public Safety Training Center on the Lake Worth campus. (Photo: PBSC)

Among the results of those relationships has been the rollout in August, after two years of preparations, of a new certification program in the criminal intervention team de-escalation model, Morton says.

“These are the types of things that catch the eye of recruits,” he says.

The corrections officer program only has two constituent agencies, and Morton notes that criminal justice programs in the nation as a whole have had difficulties with retention, although it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why. In response, Palm Beach State has collaborated with sponsoring agencies to create recruitment videos to show younger generations the rewards of careers in the field.

“It’s something you can do as a career and have great benefits and great pay,” he says. “Unfortunately, sometimes we’re up against reality TV. It doesn’t look glamorous. But those are the [influences] we compete against.”

Staying flexible for students

On the academic side of the house at Palm Beach State, associate of science programs in criminal justice and technology (both sworn and non-sworn) and an associate of arts in criminal justice have seen healthy enrollment, as have the associate of science and credit certificate programs in crime scene technology, high school dual enrollment classes overall (although there has been a drop in in-person enrollment), and the public safety telecommunications program, which has dually enrolled high school students this summer for the first time.

The academic programs have been offering online courses for at least a decade, with the associate of arts fully online for those who want it, and the associate of science set to reach that threshold this fall, says Dawn Marie Peter, professor and department chair for criminal justice and crime scene technology.

“Access to an education is what’s so important,” she says. “Today’s students aren’t like students from 20 or 30 years ago. They’re busy. They work.” That means asynchronous online classes fill up immediately, she adds. “You have to go where the students are; what works with their schedules.”

Criminal justice-related programs also have to understand where students are financially, Morton says.

“It can be a struggle,” he says. “Giving up six months of your job to be full-time at an academy is not realistic. To counter that, I have to reach out to foundations, reach out to donors, and ask if there’s any way I can get scholarship money to provide to recruits. We can offer this much off [tuition]. Which really helps boost a student to say, ‘You know what, I can save that much [remaining] money.’”

Training for a different environment

The Community College of Beaver County (CCBC) in Monaca, Pennsylvania, has seen dips in its criminal justice-oriented programs over the past few years, although most recently there has been a slight increase, according to Katie Thomas, dean of the school of business, arts, sciences and technology. The associate degree program has held steady at about 25 students, while the police academy dropped from 18 to 20 most years pre-Covid, to 10 last year and 12 this year.

“There’s a backlash against police,” Thomas says. “Culturally, there’s this attitude where folks are, unfortunately, a little wary. Because of that culture, people who are interested in going into policing — it’s always been a difficult career path, but it’s a more difficult career path now. Instead of being seen as heroes, they’re being seen as suspicious. What we’re trying to do here at CCBC is to work on professional development so that incidents we’ve seen in the past do not continue to happen.”

A Police Academy graduation last month at Community College of Beaver County. (Photo: CCBC)

The implications in CCBC’s service region, a suburban area about 25 minutes north of Pittsburgh, have been that police departments are more likely to have to hire untrained civilians off the street, and put them through their police academies, which can lead to delays in bolstering the workforce needed to make sure there are enough qualified personnel to manage issues in the community, Thomas says.

“We don’t have the bodies to fill the positions in our agencies, and there could possibly be a lack of quality,” she says. “We just had an academy graduation, and they were all employed before they even left the academy because the agencies in the area need people so badly. We’ve had [departments] from outside the county reach out to us. Everybody is trying to siphon off cadets into their own agencies.”

To meet this demand, CCBC has been working to boost enrollment further through its Criminal Justice Academy aimed at high school juniors and seniors who can complete an entire year of the criminal justice program before graduation, Thomas says. And the newly launched Center for Public Safety provides state-of-the-art technology and training in “hundreds of different scenarios” that law enforcement officers might face.

“We’re very focused on de-escalation,” she says. “We have a crime scene room that helps them to better know how to process a crime scene, so a crime can be prosecuted more effectively.”

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