On those rare occasions when members of the Cedar Rapids Police Department are called to the Mount Mercy campus, students, faculty and staff are guaranteed to receive a professional and helpful response.
But it is also common for members of the campus community to come face-to-face with an officer they know personally. This personal connection is a direct result of Mount Mercy’s thriving criminal justice program, which marks its 35th anniversary this year. In more than three decades, the criminal justice program has gained in reputation throughout the state and is credited with educating many of the area’s corrections officers and law enforcement personnel and leadership.
As a staff member who often interacts with law enforcement personnel in the event of an emergency on campus, Assistant Dean of Studentsand Director of Residence Life Jenifer Hanson appreciates the attention that the campus and its students receive from law enforcement personnel who are also Mount Mercy alumni. “It is comforting that so many local police officers are Mount Mercy graduates,” she says. “They know the campus and they care deeply about the welfare of our students.” She notes that oftentimes law enforcement will make patrols on campus when it is not typically their route because they are familiar with the location of the residential campus and wish to maintain a connection to the College.
Cody Estling ’98 is one such local law enforcement officer who makes an extra effort. “When I worked on patrol in that area of Cedar Rapids I always tried to be visible in areas where there is a higher concentration of people, and that obviously includes Mount Mercy,” he says. “It’s important for people to know that the police are out there and available if they need something.” Estling is now a sergeant assigned to the narcotics unit with the Cedar Rapids Police Department.
Preparing graduates to be leaders
Estling is one of a large group of local law enforcement personnel who are graduates of Mount Mercy’s criminal justice program. Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner ’96 “was attracted to Mount Mercy’s criminal justice program because of the convenience of the classes and the overall strength of the program.” Like many of Mount Mercy’s criminal justice students, Gardner obtained his degree while working full time. He describes the strengths of the program as “knowledgeable instructors, the varied class schedule, highly relevant course content, and a convenient local campus.”
A benefit of having a large number of alumni working in the field in the local area — and serving in leadership positions — is the opportunity for interaction with current students and members of the criminal justice faculty. The alumni connections “make our classes richer because we have so many alumni we can call upon to teach, help with mock interviews or offer their expertise,” says Amanda Humphrey, Ph.D., assistant professor of criminal justice. “I can’t be in the community without running into a Mount Mercy graduate from the criminal justice program — they are literally everywhere!” she says.
Mount Mercy criminal justice graduates have not only made their mark in Cedar Rapids but across the United States as well. In November 2009, police officer Vernon Ferguson ’06 received a meritorious service award from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department for his on-duty efforts in February 2009 to save a 16-year-old boy suffering from a gunshot wound. Ferguson attended to the teen, performing CPR and stopping further bleeding from the wound. Ferguson continued CPR for several minutes until medical personnel arrived. His efforts, while they did not save the victim’s life, ensured that the teen’s organs were able to be donated to five gravely ill patients. The victim’s mother said of Ferguson, “He [Ferguson] didn’t stop for a second. And with all the blood that must have been everywhere, he still performed CPR.”
Ferguson is not the only Mount Mercy graduate working with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. He is joined by Jason Connell ’99, a search and rescue officer. Together, the two Mount Mercy alumni have offered their connections and assistance to current Mount Mercy students interested in pursuing law enforcement in the Las Vegas area. They have hosted students who are in town for interviews and training, and view this as a way of giving back to current students the opportunities that were afforded to them.
First of its kind in Iowa
The Mount Mercy criminal justice program was initiated in 1974. It was developed on the heels of the civil disobedience and disruption rampant in the 1960s and a later push that decade for federal legislation urging police officers to embrace community policing and increase positive interaction with the public. As a result, the federal government offered funding for colleges and universities that would create programs to teach current and future law enforcement personnel strategies for professionalizing policing.
In 1974, Mount Mercy’s criminal justice program was the first four-year program of its kind in Iowa. College officials determined that the criminal justice program dovetailed nicely with the College’s mission of service to those in need. In later years, the program expanded to include emphases in corrections, community corrections, victims and women’s issues, legal and ethical issues in law enforcement and, more recently, courses that focus on research methodology.
Early on, nearly all of Mount Mercy’s criminal justice students were already in the workplace, serving various police departments or correctional facilities. Students who work while earning their bachelor’s degree continue to be a large segment of the program’s population, but as the criminal justice discipline has gained in reputation and popularity, more traditional-age students have chosen to pursue the field. As a result, criminal justice has jumped to the fourth most popular major at Mount Mercy.
Mount Mercy faculty attribute some of the popularity of criminal justice programs nationally to the rise in the number of “CSI”-type television shows that feature forensics work and glamorize the criminal justice field. Despite the development of courses that focus on “hot” issues such as research methods, victims and women’s issues, and drug-related crime, Mount Mercy’s curriculum remains focused on teaching students to understand the fundamental tenets of criminal justice: the power that comes with responsibility, respect for the law and people, and the use of power for good.
Program renaissance driven by faculty, curriculum
In the last 10 years, the criminal justice program has experienced a renaissance, due in large part to Deb Brydon, J.D., associate professor of criminal justice and chair of the Department of History, Politics and Justice. Before coming to Mount Mercy, Brydon was a practicing attorney whose niche was criminal law, but she had also previously worked as a probation officer. With this unique background, Brydon arrived at Mount Mercy 11 years ago and has since assembled a talented group of faculty with varied backgrounds and increased the rigor and reputation of the program.
“As criminal justice faculty, we stress to our students the importance of writing and documentation, and place an emphasis on community feedback,” says Brydon. “Our students are in strong demand because they are good thinkers and communicators. Local agencies contact us and ask us to recommend talented candidates for their positions.”
The quality education and background Mount Mercy students receive from their professors is noticed by those in the profession. “Mount Mercy’s criminal justice program is able to provide its graduates with the education they need in order to be successful in their field,” says Sheriff Gardner. “They do this by providing students with a quality education that fits the needs of criminal justice employers and prepares the students for employment in the real world.”
“As one of the Criminal Justice instructors at Mount Mercy stated, ‘You learn how to learn,’” says Brad Feickert ’08, an officer who has served with the Marion Police Department for five years. “I learned how to research various topics — which is a skill I use every day on the job. I learned speaking skills, and how to form arguments and to support my opinions and decisions with facts.”
Feickert echoes Professor Humphrey’s goal for her students. “I hope our students take with them the ability to see issues from multiple perspectives,” she says. “I want them to realize that issues are more complicated than they seem, and to know that you can’t come to a quick answer. You must evaluate the problem from a broader and deeper understanding of justice
and law in our society.”
Brydon, Humphrey and associate professor of criminal justice Chad Loes ’99 each have varied backgrounds in the criminal justice field, which allows students to learn different facets of the discipline. Brydon utilizes her legal background to teach legal and ethical issues in the discipline; Loes specializes in cognitive development, research methodology, and diversity issues; and Humphrey’s expertise is corrections and victim and women’s issues.
The trio’s connections in the local community — through volunteer work and professional networking — enables them to leverage their contacts for the benefit of Mount Mercy students. Local law enforcement personnel, including George O’Donnell ’89, former captain of the division of Motor Vehicle Enforcement, Bruce Vander Sanden, division manager of the Sixth Judicial District Department of Correctional Services, and Joe Cerruto ’03, sergeant with the Cedar Rapids Police Department, also serve as adjunct instructors, offering students a well-rounded education and the opportunity to connect with professionals working in the field.
Vander Sanden is quick to point out that Mount Mercy’s distinctive curriculum prepares students for careers in the criminal justice field. “Mount Mercy’s criminal justice students are exposed to all aspects of the criminal justice system and achieve an understanding of how they all work together,” he says. “Upon graduation they have an understanding of all career possibilities, which enables them to make informed decisions about their career of choice.”
Brydon and her colleagues have lofty goals for the continuing development of the criminal justice program. She notes that the curriculum and instruction will continue to “focus on helping students be good thinkers and communicators,” but also points to the possibility of exploration of a graduate program blending criminal justice and public affairs, and the development of opportunities for international student exchanges with partner universities in England and the Czech Republic. Until then, Brydon remains content “knowing that our students have difficult, serious jobs” and that Mount Mercy’s criminal justice program has prepared them to “handle the responsibility” that comes with protecting, serving and leading others.