Arts & Sciences

Criminal justice courses draw on real-world scenarios

March 03, 2015 by Cindy O'Dell
Criminal justice assistant professor Dr. Karin Storm

Criminal justice assistant professor Dr. Karin Storm

When Dr. Karin Storm walks into the classroom, she has a pretty good idea what her students are thinking – about her height, her credentials, maybe even her shoes.

Seven weeks later she’ll be asking them, “What did you think of me? What stereotypes did you think about me when I first walked into the classroom? You just profiled me. You made an assumption about me and about how the class was going to be. Were you wrong?”

“They always say, ‘yes’,” she says with a slight smile. It’s one of the many ways that Storm, an assistant professor of criminal justice in the School of Arts and Sciences, drives home what she says is one of the key points in every class she teaches: criminal justice professions need to learn to remain neutral. They also need to be aware of their own biases, work past them and articulate their reasons for taking what every actions they take.

Storm doesn’t shy away from the big ticket issues that involve law enforcement, including profiling, Ferguson, Missouri, and police shootings. They are the basis of the best discussions in classes that often include current police officers working to complete a degree in criminal justice, veterans with military police experience, social work majors and liberal arts majors who may or may not have an interest in a criminal justice career.

Scenarios from her experiences as a federal law enforcement agent to cases reverberating in news are all fodder for discussion.

Sometimes the first step is to get her students to think past the latest television drama depicting a similar crime or situation.

“I tell them to watch for entertainment value only. Nothing is ever wrapped up in an hour with a nice bow,” she says, admitting she enjoys watching as well. “But in the grand scheme of things, it’s not an actual picture of how police investigations are conducted. It’s not that easy. I wish it were.”

She uses the real-life scenarios to drive home the point that things are never clear cut. She’ll present a police-shooting scenario and then have students break into small groups to discuss what should happen next.  She expects them to explain their choices and she offers feedback that can include “you can’t do that. It’s illegal.” She also reminds them that the five minutes they had to make up their minds would be seconds or fractions of seconds in real life.

Criminal justice concentrations 

  •  Corrections
  • Forensics
  • Homeland Security
  • Leadership
  • Security services
  • Victim advocacy, social justice

“There is no one right way … what I would do in this situation may not be what I would do tomorrow. I tell my students it’s not about right or wrong. It’s about how you articulate the reasons for why you’ve done what you’ve done. You should know how to articulate the decisions that you’ve made because that’s what you have to do if called to testify in a court of law. And you have to know and use the correct terminology – reasonable doubt, probable cause, beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Storm also brings other law enforcement officers into the classroom to provide a variety of viewpoints: Irvine’s police chief, officers from L.A.P.D., corrections officers. “They don’t have to take my word for what happens.”

She also stays connected to the world of investigations and the lives of police officers through her work on the personnel board for the city of Huntington Beach and as the media officer for Police Unity Tour, a cycling event for police officers that has raised $14 million over a 17-year period for the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. The fund honors the memory of officers killed in the line of duty with a Hall of Remembrance in the National Law Enforcement Museum in Washington, D.C. monthly awards for officers who have gone above the call of duty and other activities.

Badges2Her connections are evident on the bulletin board in her Brandman office with its display of badges from Australia to the Honolulu to Chicago to Irvine police departments. Trading badges is a long-time tradition of officers, she says. She offers a Brandman coin emblazoned with “A Legacy of Military Education” in exchange and is never turned down. “My goal is to get New York this year.”

Storm tests her own ability to stay neutral and unbiased while assessing personnel issues with others for Huntington Beach. Cases involve complaints against city personnel, including police officers, which can involve questions of unfair hiring and racial bias.

“It’s a way for me to remember that I need to be neutral. It’s really the same skill set as being an officer. You have to look at all the evidence and critically analyze it and then work as a team to come to a consensus,” she says.

She also talks with her students about their career paths. Some come into her classes (everything from organizational crime to police and society) with a police career in mind and change their minds as they work through various scenarios. She reminds them of other options that rely on criminal justice skills.

It was a college professor at Cal State Long Beach who urged her to get an internship with the federal government. She was majoring in criminal justice with an eye toward going to law school, until she realized she might have to defend people who were guilty. “My moral compass wouldn’t allow that,” she says. Her interest in investigations led to a longer career with the federal government, but she never lost her interest in teaching, which she began doing while still in college, or in learning, eventually earning a doctorate in educational leadership.

“I love Brandman,” Storm says, after a year as the only full-time assistant professor teaching criminal justice classes exclusively. She’s in the middle of assessing with others ways to adjust the curriculum to changes in law enforcement.

She enjoys the variety of opinions voiced in the classroom and the range of experiences her students bring. And she makes sure they leave knowing how to provide explanations for how they think what they think in a clear concise manner, even in the face of complex issues that others want to see as black and white.

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