MASTER’S PROGRAM AIMS TO TEACH POLICE LEADERS TO BECOME CHANGEMAKERS
Too often the news is dominated by footage of violent confrontations between the public and the police — think Ferguson, New York, Baltimore. The all-too-familiar imagery — officers in riot gear facing off with anguished and angry protesters — fuels the narrative that the division between the two groups is insurmountable. The end result dehumanizes everyone involved, preventing the possibility of real understanding and change.
Helping to lessen the many tensions around race, law enforcement and the disenfranchised in the United States is the focus of the Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership (MS-LEPSL) master’s program, offered through Professional and Continuing Education at USD. The program, in place for less than a year, has exceeded expectations. The incoming student goal was surpassed by 315 percent, and enrollment continues to grow. Of the student body, 42 percent represent racial and ethnic groups that have been historically underrepresented as students at USD.
“This program directly engages some of the most important issues facing our country today,” says Erik Fritsvold (pictured), the program’s academic coordinator, as well as an associate professor in the Department of Sociology. “Through the lens of social justice and ethical leadership, this program serves students who have a hands-on and significant impact on our communities.”
Designed following two-and-a-half years of surveys, research and interviews with law enforcement leaders, the program aims to connect academia to the real world.
“Our course on community engagement focuses on controversial use-of-force events, best practices and strategies in the wake of conflicts in cities like Baltimore and Ferguson, which have brought these issues into the national spotlight,” Fritsvold says. “The faculty team for this course is uniquely positioned to address these issues. It includes two current police chiefs, a captain, a lieutenant and the president of the Black Police Officers’ Association.”
In addition to the program’s unique focus is the community it serves — rising and current law enforcement leaders.
“USD is beginning to put together strategies that grapple with the reality that only 15 percent of those enrolled in higher education fit the ‘traditional’ profile,” says Jason Lemon, dean of Professional and Continuing Education. “USD has so much to offer to the ‘nontraditional’ 85 percent of the higher education population that is seeking to advance their careers, enjoy new opportunities and make positive changes for themselves and their families.”
For Lemon, this new program signals USD’s effort to connect far beyond the immediate region and reach law enforcement leaders on the state and national levels.
“It’s not a typical criminal justice degree. We are offering a curriculum that targets those who desire to lead well, and by doing so, impact the culture and organization of their professional environments,” says Lemon.
“Our program is for those who already know the technical components of their work and who are ready to do something about the organizational, cultural and leadership elements of their professional settings.”
Lieutenant Edwin Brock, a San Diego Sheriff’s Department Communications Center watch commander, is enrolled in the program’s inaugural cohort. With 24 years of experience in law enforcement, this master’s program stood out to Brock because of its originality.
“I love the program because it’s something new,” says Brock. “The word ‘vanguard’ comes to mind.”
For Brock, the fact that USD is a Catholic institution means social justice values are incorporated throughout all aspects of the program. “God’s message is to love God and to love your neighbor,” says Brock. “Isn’t that what most police officers say? Protect and serve.”
Brock says that programs such as MS-LEPSL encourage law enforcement officials to reach out to their communities by offering students cutting-edge skills and tools that include and engage them in the conversation.
“USD has inspired us,” says Brock. “I’m not afraid to be a part of the discussion. Let’s move this forward. Let’s discuss this. Let’s find a winning scenario for everyone.”
For Tiffany Townsend, a Rancho San Diego Command area detective, the MS-LEPSL program is more than an education; it’s her future.
“I value knowledge. Learning to me is a way to freedom, a good life and joy,” says the 10-year law enforcement veteran. “Learning and gaining knowledge helps to open doors and avenues that weren’t visible before.”
Obtaining a master’s degree was something Townsend had always wanted to do, but finding the right program was difficult. “I had wanted to go back to school for several years, but the timing seemed wrong and the degrees seemed off,” she says. “I would like to better myself and this is a good way to do it. This program presented itself as a great opportunity. It would be a shame not to take it.”
For Townsend, the chance to further her education aligned with her own role in the San Diego community.
“The dedication to ethical conduct and compassionate service is what law enforcement is, or should be, all about. I believe I provide a public service every time I go to work,” she says. “We enforce fundamental ethics as a profession and we participate in continuous training to gain knowledge to help us better serve the communities we work for.”
For Jazzma Rainey (pictured), the MS-LEPSL program was the opportunity to receive the USD education she’d always wanted.
“Growing up in San Diego, I was already familiar with the prestige of a USD degree,” says Rainey. “When I learned about the online program, there was no doubt in my mind that this was perfect for me.”
As a Customs and Border Protection officer for the past 13 years, Rainey knew that she would gain advanced training in community policing strategies, ultimately allowing her to better serve others.
“Programs like this one reinforce the emotional, academic and ethical practices of what is considered ‘good policing’ by teaching the importance of professionalism, open-mindedness and the framework of ethical community-policing,” says Rainey.
“Learning about cultural and social issues that create a need for organizations like Black Lives Matter from an academic standpoint enables law enforcement personnel to engage with cultural and political movements with emotional intelligence and good moral conduct, even in the toughest situations.”
For Rainey, the fact that the MS-LEPSL program is at USD further signals the ability for progressive law enforcement to make a meaningful, lasting community impact.
“Law enforcement is on the other end of the spectrum to the traditional faith-based programs offered at USD. This program shows the university in a progressive light and sends a message of inclusion and diversity.”
While there are no easy answers, there are some core touchstones that may help ensure success.
“One of the key components is having experienced practitioners,” says Benjamin Kelso, a MS-LEPSL professor and a lieutenant with the San Diego Police Department Internal Affairs unit. “Real life events come up as part of the modules we teach in the courses.”
A 27-year law enforcement veteran, Kelso (pictured) is also the president of the San Diego Black Police Officers’ Association, a position he says is key in helping his students understand police-community relations.
“My role is to incorporate some of the experiences the president of the Black Police Officers’ Association has in day-to-day situations and to bring them into our discussions of law enforcement,” says Kelso. “It’s a benefit. It allows other perspectives to be brought up and discussed in scholarly settings, providing insights into community attitudes and feelings.”
For Kelso, understanding different perspectives begins with listening to and embracing all communities.
“We would like to believe we’ve reached a stage in the development of our nation where race is no longer a factor, but we know this is not the case. We have to continue to work to be more inclusive and try to establish a level playing field for all members of our society,” says Kelso.
“Movements like Black Lives Matter are a reaction to the old ways that law enforcement has done things. It’s a reemergence of the civil rights era. We want to see more accountability, transparency and fairness in the criminal justice system.”
Fritsvold and Lemon say the new MS-LEPSL program is the bridge between USD’s social justice teachings and community outreach efforts. It’s the link that allows forward movement towards accountability, transparency and fairness and community engagement by the university.
“USD is showing everyone who learns about this program that the principles of critical thinking, inquiry-focused learning, intensive engagement with curricular content, community engagement, access and inclusion, and caring for our communities are central to advanced education for the law enforcement and public safety communities,” says Lemon.
Fritsvold credits the program as further opening USD to underserved populations, signaling the university’s dedication to progressive degrees that address societal changes while equipping students with the means to lead the change in both their careers and lives.
“Education has a critically important role to play in bridging the gap between law enforcement and the communities they serve,” says Fritsvold. “Education has been demonstrated to nurture more culturally aware officers, who are better positioned to succeed in the increasingly multicultural communities of the U.S.”
Creating an inclusive society that’s protected by a fair criminal justice system is a lofty goal. To reach reconciliation and to overcome the void we see in our communities, education must have a real-world approach that teaches leadership and emphasizes social justice. USD is offering degree programs that really can make positive change possible. — Allyson Meyer ’16
For more, go to sandiego.edu/ms-lepsl. Each September, the Law Enforcement Association Leadership Symposium is held at USD. The event provides relevant and immediately practical information to large police and sheriff associations. Go to sandiego.edu/leals.