Arts & Sciences

CSI Brandman: Students get schooled in real-world law enforcement

December 03, 2015 by Cindy O'Dell
Katarina Kovic photographs the mock crime scene while Irvine Police officers and her fellow Brandman students look on.

Katarina Kovic photographs the mock crime scene while Irvine Police officers and her fellow Brandman students look on. Photos by Gustav Deutsch

The lobby of the Irvine Police Department on a recent Monday was full of Brandman sociology students, a few weary locals waiting to talk to police officers and at least one bad actor – in every sense of that phrase.

The sociology students were there for a tour organized by their professor Dr. Sheila Steinberg. Or at least that’s what they thought. They’re studying the sociology of deviant behavior this session and deviant behavior (that is, behavior that members of a social group decide is outside the values, rules or norms of their society) is exactly what police officers deal with on a daily basis. Steinberg wanted to connect the academic studies to the real world and simultaneously build a bridge to the Irvine community.

“So much of what we talk about in this class relates to crime,” said Steinberg, adding that the classes she remember most from her own college days are those that included field trips.

What Steinberg and Farrah Emami, public information officer for the police department, also knew was that the students were in for more than a tour.

After oohing and aahing over SWAT vehicles, new police SUVs, a map with live traffic information, a state-of-the-art dispatch room with live monitoring of intersections and a room devoted to crime scene investigation (CSI), the students entered a room that looked like a small tornado had blown through.

Tam Nguyen gathers evidence as Rojelio Mendoza (left) studies other aspects of the crime scene.

Tam Nguyen gathers evidence as Rojelio Mendoza (left) studies other aspects of the crime scene.

“It’s a crime scene,” explained Emami.

Officer Mat Aragon set up the scenario: There had been an assault and an iPhone was stolen. Because someone was hurt and something was stolen under the fear of force, the crime rises to the level of a felony.

Students were immediately put to work putting up crime scene tape, photographing the scene, assigning numbers to and recording the evidence, collecting samples, analyzing the evidence and carefully logging everyone who entered or left the crime scene. An hour or so later they studied a page with four pictures. The suspect (the “bad actor”) had been in the lobby.

Did anyone recognize him from the pictures?

A few students remembered him but most did not, even though he had stormed angrily out of the building. Rojelio Mendoza noticed him but thought he was just a regular guy getting angry. Mendoza had taken a seat away from the other students before the tour began because he didn’t want anyone to catch his cold.

“I guess it was quieter where I was, so he caught my attention,” said Mendoza.

Brandman University students prepare to swab a water bottle for DNA as Debra Worksman, a CSI specialist from the Irvine Police Department checks their work.

Brandman University students prepare to swab a water bottle for DNA as Debra Worksman, a CSI specialist from the Irvine Police Department checks their work.

Talking about the field trip later, Nehansee Vaishnani said she was surprised that the “suspect” had been in the lobby while they were all there. “I learned to be more attentive,” she said.

Several students said it opened their eyes to how detailed the police work needs to be. “It’s not as freelance as it is in the movies,” said Tyler Settle, who said he appreciated as a sociology student seeing what “deviance” looks like from a police perspective.

“I liked having a more hands-on experience, a different setting than the classroom,” said Alexis Portillo who was in charge of setting up the crime scene perimeter. “I was really impressed that they (the Irvine Police) have programs like this for residents.”

For Katarina Kovic, the experience was more than just

Studying photos of possible suspects.

Studying photos of possible suspects.

interesting. The native of Serbia is a criminal justice major and she’s hoping the contacts she made through the field trip might help her along her career path.

Emami said this was the first time a college class had seen the CSI scenario.

“We’ve done this scenario three times, once for high school students, once for community members of all different ages and backgrounds and now for college students,” said Emami. “It’s a way for us to share the process of investigation and explain how different departments intersect.”

“Part of the fun and part of the lesson is how to be a good witness,” said Emami. “They can see how challenging it is to provide information.”

Sprinkled in with the fun were more serious issues such as what made the crime serious, what goes into both an investigation and a search, what the rights of the suspect are and how to properly arrest someone.

Understanding the difference between what deviance means in the sociological sense and in the criminal sense of the term also helped tie it back to the students’ Brandman studies.

As Steinberg noted, not all behavior considered outside societal norms is illegal. “Weird is not a crime,” said Steinberg.

Officer Mat Aragon shoes how to handcuff the suspect as Detective McDavid Matue looks on.

Officer Mat Aragon shoes how to handcuff the “suspect” (volunteer actor Michael Hernandez)  as Detective McDavid Mutuc, Tyler Settle and Nehansee Vaishnani  look on.

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