BANGOR, Maine — Orono police Capt. Scott Wilcox studied criminal justice in college but it wasn’t until he was at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy that he learned what procedures to follow at a traffic stop.
Wilcox and several of his fellow officers earlier this month oversaw a simulated traffic stop at Husson University for Criminal Justice 101, an entry-level class made up almost entirely of freshmen.
“We didn’t have this when I was in college,” he said. “This allows them to see how the concepts they are studying in their textbooks apply on the street. Traffic stops are something we do all time but they have the potential to be very dangerous.”
After a quick briefing from Wilcox and other Orono officers about probable cause for traffic stops and what to look for, the students got in an unmarked police car. Upper classmen in the program portrayed the people in stopped cars, who were suspected of underage drinking, operating while under the influence of intoxicants, possessing drugs, violating bail conditions and driving with suspended licenses.
In an unmarked police car, the freshmen followed the older students in one of their cars toward the Griffin Road exit on campus. The pretend officers pulled over their classmates just as real police officers would.
After the interaction — which included producing driver’s licenses, registrations and proofs of insurance — the students playing the officers were debriefed by real officers to determine whether the vehicle could be searched, who should be issued a summons for a civil violation and who should be placed under arrest.
“The ability to conduct simulated exercises such as mock bar fights and controlled traffic stops gives students real-time exposure to the demand of the profession,” Cornel Plebani, assistant professor in the School of Legal Studies, said last week. “Students can begin translating abstract concepts such as probable cause and discretion into application-based learning.
“Not only do these simulations allow for supervised knowledge and skill-building, they also afford students a chance to begin networking with and learning from established professionals in the field who are doing the work on a daily basis,” he said.
About 88 percent of the men and women working in law enforcement in Maine have college degrees, according to Maine Department of Labor Statistics. As of May 2012, 2,050 people were employed as patrol officers and 550 were working as detectives and criminal investigators. About 330 were considered to be supervisors and more than 1,100 worked in corrections.
Other Maine schools offering associate and bachelor’s degree in criminal justice include Southern Maine Community College in South Portland, Thomas College in Waterville, the University of Maine at Augusta and the University of Maine at Presque Isle. Husson first offered a bachelor of science degree in criminal justice in 1999 by recruiting officers who had not finished their undergraduate degrees, according to Marie E. Hansen, dean of the College of Business. The associate of science degree in criminal justice was implemented a short time later.
Four years later, the curriculum was revised when Hansen, a lawyer, was hired to direct the program, she said last week in an email. The program goals center on the administration of justice, law enforcement, law adjudication, corrections, criminological theory and research and analytical methods. In 2006, a dual degree in criminal justice and psychology was created.
A master of science degree in criminal justice was created in 2005 and, in 2011, a program that allowed students to pursue their undergraduate and master’s degrees was implemented, Hansen said. An undergraduate degree in forensic science was added last year “to provide a pathway for advanced evidence collection and science-based skills to be developed,” she said.
Each year, on average, five to eight students earn an associate degree, between 50 and 60 earn bachelor’s degrees and between seven and 10 earn master’s degrees, according to data provided by Hansen. Job placement is close to 100 percent, she said.
Graduates of the Husson program now work in New York, Virginia, Florida, Vermont, Massachusetts and New Hampshire as well as Maine, according to Hansen. Former students now work in municipal departments around the state, in sheriff’s departments, for the Maine State Police and federal agencies such as U.S. Border Patrol.
Once hired by a municipal police department, a sheriff’s department or the state police, new employees attend an 18-week program the Maine Criminal Justice Academy in Vassalboro at their employers’ expense. Efforts to reach administrators at the academy were unsuccessful Friday.
“I do think that people coming into law enforcement are a bit more prepared than I was when I started 25 years ago,” Chief Deputy Troy Morton of the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office said Saturday. Morton started his law enforcement career at age 19, working in Penobscot County Jail and rising through the ranks.
Individuals the county has hired over the past few years have come to the job with a better understanding of concepts such as community policing and the challenges mental health and substance abuse present to officers inside and outside the jail than in the past, he said.
“The biggest challenge we have is what people see on TV,” he said. “I visit a lot of K-12 schools and kids always come up to me and say, ‘I want to be a CSI investigator.’ The more they get a real perspective about what the job is really about — and it’s not like it is on TV — the better prepared they’ll be on the street.”