Johns Hopkins Magazine -- June 1997
Johns Hopkins Magazine

JUNE 1997



Police work today is worlds different than it was even a decade ago. At Hopkins, a challenging new graduate program is helping police leaders stay ahead of the curve.

P U B L I C    P O L I C Y    A N D    I N T E R N A T I O N A L    A F F A I R S

Top Cops
Hit the Books

By Dale Keiger
Photos by Steffi Graham

CLASSES LET OUT on an April afternoon at Milford Mill Academy, a suburban high school near Baltimore. Much about the scene looks familiar to any middle-aged adult: kids streaming out of the school building, yellow buses pulling away from the curb, cars stopping to pick up students. The kids wear baggier clothes than they did 20 years ago, and what used to be called "gym shoes" now are marvels of engineering and marketing. But the big difference, at least on this day, is the Baltimore County police cars. There are at least eight of them--in the lot, at all surrounding intersections, pulled into a few driveways. The cops in these cars are vigilant as the student body disperses for the day. The kids look casual and uninterested, but they know the police are here, and they know why.

Two days ago, at about this time, a pair of rival gangs in the school went at each other. Thirty or so kids battled on the school grounds. Worse, a car cruised by and someone inside it fired shots at the melee. No one was hit, but the word is out that retaliation will be forthcoming.

Major Michael Stelmack, an area commander in the Baltimore County Police Department, sits in an unmarked car and watches the scene unfold. Earlier, he'd met with the principal and roamed the halls with one of his officers who works part time on behalf of the school. He'd heard the noise coming from some of the classrooms, observed things like a teenage girl sitting in a boy's lap, and surmised that the school's administration wasn't sufficiently in control. He decides that rather than return to the station house to attend an afternoon roll call, he'll stick around to see what happens as school lets out.

An alert comes over the radio: someone has noticed that a black Chevy Cavalier has cruised the lot about five times. Stelmack sees vehicles everywhere, but no black Cavalier. "Some of these kids have nice cars," he notes.

The students begin to thin out without incident, and Stelmack relaxes a little, musing about the changes he's seen. "Twenty-five years ago, we'd have responded to something like that fight by turning the dogs loose, clubbing and locking up people, then we'd have left and not come back the next day. In 1972, we had a reactive force, just responding to calls. Nothing else. Now we're proactive." The show of force at Milford Mill is meant to ward off another gang battle, and to demonstrate to the neighborhood that the police department understands its concerns and means to be responsive.

"Twenty five years ago, we'd have responded to that fight by turning the dogs loose, clubbing and locking up people, then we'd have left and not come back the next day."
Today there are no gunshots, no fistfights. After about a half-hour, Stelmack drives off the lot, stops to chat with a few nearby officers under his command, then heads for a late lunch. When he gets home tonight, he'll run a few miles, see his wife and kids, then retire for an evening of homework. Stelmack is a master's candidate at the Hopkins School of Continuing Studies. Tonight, he might have to make progress on a strategic planning exercise, or work on something for a class on managing change. He might have to read Aristotle or Immanuel Kant--all to become a better police commander. Being a cop has changed.

IN 1991, STANLEY GABOR, dean of Continuing Studies, noticed a front-page New York Times article. The story reported that in 1970, only 6 percent of American police officers had bachelor's degrees. By 1990, that figure had grown to 23 percent. "That meant approximately 125,000 had bachelor's degrees," Gabor recalls. "I said, 'Wait a minute...where are they getting advanced degrees?' So we searched the country and found out that the only master's degrees given to police were in criminal justice--Handcuffs 101. Those programs were not addressing some of the key needs of a public service that, in the amount of money spent, is second only to education."

Gabor saw an opportunity to do what he does for a living, which is create continuing studies programs that will bring in more business for Hopkins. He began talking to Sheldon Greenberg, who was associate director of a police think tank, the Police Executive Research Forum, in Washington, D.C. Greenberg, himself a former cop who had gone on to earn a PhD in public administration, jumped at the chance to create a new program for police leadership.

"We're in the biggest period of change in the history of modern police service," Greenberg says. "The changes now dwarf the changes of the 1960s. Police officers are called on to do more outside the realm of traditional policing than ever before."

Greenberg makes his case by listing all that has changed. The demographics of American urban and suburban neighborhoods are evolving rapidly. Police are dealing with more varied ethnic groups than ever before--Salvadorians, Ethiopians, Russians, Jamaicans, Koreans. They encounter religions, languages, social attitudes, and customs that they may know little or nothing about. American families have changed; there are more single-parent households, more families in which both parents work all day, more teenaged mothers and fathers. Criminals have beepers, cell telephones, police scanners, computers, and sophisticated assault rifles. Jail used to be a sign of failure; now, in some neighborhoods, serving time is a badge of honor. The police must handle runaways, homeless people, truants, and mental patients turned loose by institutions that formerly kept them off the streets. Communities expect the police to respond to any and all problems in this changing world, and have become aggressive in their scrutiny of what the cops do. "Police are the focal point," Greenberg says. "To these communities, the police are City Hall."

He and Gabor looked at the advanced training offered at other places in the United States and Great Britain. "We knew up front that we didn't want a police course," Greenberg says. "The people we were targeting--current and future police executives--already had enough police experience."

When Greenberg and Gabor finished, they'd designed a two-year master's degree program, with advanced coursework in understanding and managing change, organizational behavior, information technology, building organizations, and ethics. They decided to make it a cohort program--students would progress as a class and spend two years together, to develop bonds and better cooperation between agencies. Police departments in the Baltimore-Washington area would nominate candidates, and Hopkins would admit 24 per class. For faculty, they'd tap Baltimore area universities and agencies, supplemented by guest speakers from law enforcement, research firms, and government.

In September 1994, 24 law enforcement officers from Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and several Maryland counties became the first class in the Hopkins Police Executive Leadership Program (PELP). That group graduated last year.

As far as Gabor and Greenberg can tell, PELP is the first program of its kind in the U.S. The National University Continuing Education Association recently recognized it for innovative programming. The U.S. Secret Service has enacted a partnership to enhance the quality of its own academy. Gabor foresees a potential distance learning program that would reach cops all over the country. For now, the action takes place in Shaffer Hall on the Hopkins Homewood campus.

Officers in the program take 154 hours of ethics coursework.
PELP CLASSES MEET on two Fridays and two Saturdays a month, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The students favor jeans and athletic shoes, the latter considerably cheaper than the models Stelmack had observed on the feet of the kids from Milford Mill Academy. There are, of course, baked goods, though bagels have made inroads on the doughnut monopoly.

On this Friday morning, Stelmack sits in a class on ethics. The program includes 154 hours of ethics coursework, and Greenberg says he is considering adding more. "We focus a lot on the concept of 'right,'" he says. "How do you know when you are doing right? And whose 'right' are you doing? The department's? Your own? The community's?"

Stephen Vicchio, professor of philosophy at Baltimore's College of Notre Dame, teaches Stelmack's class. Vicchio is impressed with his students: "They're very smart and very honest, and they're very creative. I didn't expect any of those things, because of my own myopia. They're as good as anyone I teach, though it takes a while to convince them of that."

Regarding ethics, Vicchio says, "Police officers tend to suffer from the same moral problems that the rest of us do. It's just that when they do something morally wrong, it really makes a difference. They're held to a higher standard than the general population."

Alan Dreher commands the Washington, D.C., homicide unit. He has just completed the Hopkins program, and notes that police departments are under unprecedented scrutiny. Ethnic and community groups have learned how to organize and exert political pressure; they keep an eye on the police and forcefully pursue complaints. Dreher responds to calls now and finds citizens videotaping crime scenes and police conduct. They monitor police radio with scanners. Media scrutiny, especially in D.C., is intense. "Politics and crime run this media market," Dreher says.

On this day in Vicchio's class, several officers from a Maryland-area department present research they've done on the ethical problems related to secondary employment--moonlighting. Police officers tend to be badly paid. Some metropolitan departments have endured multiple pay cuts. As a result, a large percentage of police officers work second, and sometimes third, jobs. They often find employment as security guards, which can pose problems. What happens when, say, the narcotics squad raids a nightclub and finds that the bouncer is an off-duty cop? Officers sometimes end up as employment brokers, representing businesses that hire police; this can lead to lieutenants and captains depending on sergeants for work.

In class, officers from various jurisdictions listen to the research presentation, then compare notes on their own departments' problems and policies. Vicchio periodically steers the discussion toward the ethical issues at the heart of each situation.

"There's a guy in the program who has this interesting theory," Vicchio says later. "He says that 85 percent of cops are basically like the rest of us, not moral paragons but pretty decent people. Probably another 5 percent are pretty rotten. And then about 10 percent are unusually good. What you do with the folks on either end usually determines what happens to your police department. If you don't catch bad cops doing bad things, or you make it look like you don't care, then some of the folks in the middle will start drifting in that direction. But if you reward people's honesty and their hard work, those guys in the 85 percent see that and lean in that direction. I think it's a very good theory."

Stelmack has noticed a dramatic change in police attitude toward ethics during his career. "Twenty-five years ago, if one cop saw another cop do something wrong, he wouldn't report it," he says. Now, when he addresses the first late-shift roll call on a Wednesday night, Stelmack emphasizes that ethical lapses will not be tolerated. "We have to have the highest ethical standards of any profession," he tells the assembled patrol officers. "Lawyers can steal their clients' money and still practice law. Doctors can lose patients, get sued, and still practice medicine. If a cop screws up, he's unemployed."

After Stelmack's remarks, the shift commander smiles and tells him that whether he realizes it or not, he's just repeated part of one of Vicchio's lectures. When Stelmack addresses a second roll call, he repeats himself, and this time gives Vicchio credit.

AS AN AREA COMMANDER, Stelmack supervises two districts in Baltimore County that, in area, comprise roughly half the county. He has just moved to a new office. Much of his stuff is still in boxes, he doesn't like the color of his walls, and he's unsure how to work the phone system.

Stelmack has been a cop for more than 25 years, and two of his brothers are cops. Years ago, he nearly had to shoot a man involved in a convenience store holdup, and sounds glad that the perpetrator chose to give up instead. He has met every U.S. president since Eisenhower (some of them when he was a boy--he's 44 now), and several film stars. He likes Clint Eastwood and Tom Selleck. When Congress subpoenaed the former pornography actress Traci Lords, Stelmack hauled her off the Baltimore set of a John Waters movie. "Boy, did she have a mouth on her," he says, recalling her colorful language.

Participants spend two years together as a class to develop bonds and better cooperation between agencies.
He has about 265 officers now under his command, and they are much more varied than when he started police work. "We went from an all-white, all-male force 25 years ago, to now, where we have everybody," he says. "We've gone from having cops with high school diplomas and GEDs to cops with master's degrees and PhDs. We used to have nothing more complicated than radios. Now we have computer mapping, DNA testing, forensics technology. Any police leader who doesn't stay up with changes in policing is lost.

"Ninety percent of our budget is tied up in the people who do the job," he adds. "I practice 'management by walking around.' If you want to be a good boss, you have to get out. I like to ride with the patrol cops. I get to meet the people who work for me and see things from their perspective."

Today he'll be seeing things from the perspective of Christine Sisk. Sisk is 25 and has been a cop for three years. She is brisk, very polite, and cheerfully accommodating about having to spend the morning with a major and a reporter in her squad car.

Stelmack, who is 6-6, folds himself into the front seat and chats with Sisk as she wheels away from the district station to begin patrolling her beat. Baltimore County patrol cars come equipped with a computer messaging system. The station can send bulletins and information to any number of its units, and individual officers can communicate with each other car-to-car. A few minutes after Sisk starts her shift, the system beeps and a message appears in yellow letters on the black screen: TELL STELMACK NOT TO TALK ABOUT ME. HE WENT TO SCHOOL WITH MY BROTHERS.

Stelmack notes the name on the message and smiles. "I haven't seen her in so long," he says. The system includes a compact keyboard, and with one finger he taps out a reply: I REMEMBER WHEN YOU WERE A LITTLE GIRL.

After a few minutes, the system beeps again: I'M NOT LITTLE ANYMORE.

Sisk grins and says, "She's six-two."

Stelmack and Sisk spend much of the morning checking out false house alarms--a new everyday annoyance to police officers. When a suburban house alarm goes off, it's almost always because a gust of wind hit the storm door, or the dog set off the motion detector, or the homeowner accidentally triggered it. In two hours, Sisk checks out three of them, all false. She tickets an illegally parked car at a supermarket, much to the annoyance of the driver. She responds to one traffic accident: a woman has driven into a ditch, to avoid an oncoming car that had swerved to miss a jaywalking squirrel. In between these routine duties, Stelmack questions her about the job, the community, her supervisors. He's low-key and chatty; Sisk seems a bit self-conscious and formal.

Mid-morning, he asks Sisk to name the best bagel shop in the neighborhood, and she pulls into one. A runner and weight lifter, she likes to strap a mountain bike to the squad car and ride it around the neighborhood's business district during part of her shift. She is known to several people in this bagel shop, and Stelmack is pleased to see that.

Baltimore County was an early exponent of "community policing." Ask six people in law enforcement and government to define that, and you'll get seven different answers. To Stelmack, it means working directly with community leaders, residents, and merchants to better understand their concerns, and explain what the police can and cannot do to solve their problems. "Previously," he says, "we would tell you what your problems were. If you didn't see the same things as problems, you wouldn't support us." Communication in the old days consisted mostly of calls for help and terse response reports. Now, police attend community meetings, survey merchants, organize athletic leagues, and share more information with the public. The emphasis is on being part of the community, instead of an agency apart that merely steps in when someone breaks the law.

As part of community policing, individual officers have expanded authority to study problems and create solutions. A few days before Stelmack rode with Sisk, Greenberg offered an example of this new authority. A street in an urban community was enduring a rash of vandalism to cars, and complained to the police. In the past, he says, an officer would have written down the details, filed a report, perhaps patrolled the street for a few days, and that would have been it. "There would be no resolution, just report-taking," Greenberg says.

Under community policing, the officer is authorized, and expected, to study the situation and come up with a solution. In this case, the police studied a series of reports and noticed that the cars all had been vandalized at night, and all the incidents had occurred shortly after a nearby roller rink closed for the evening. Furthermore, the cops noted, the vandalized cars had been parked between the rink and a bus stop. The officers had the authority to go to the managers of the roller rink and induce them to broadcast warnings that vandals would be apprehended and prosecuted. Furthermore, the cops went to the transit authority and convinced it to change the bus route to include a stop in front of the rink. The vandalism stopped.

In the old days, Greenberg explains, a beat cop would have asked a sergeant about getting help from transit, and the idea would have passed from sergeant to lieutenant to captain to major to assistant chief and then, weeks later, perhaps would have made it to the right desk at the transit authority. Under the new rules, the beat cops did it all themselves.

"The key is problem-solving," Stelmack says. "We empower police officers to do a lot. They don't have to come to me for permission. All I ask is to learn what's going on."

This new wholesale approach to how the police operate has wrought changes in how commanders do their jobs, and how they are evaluated. Back in his office, Stelmack pulls out a copy of his district's strategic objectives. That such a document exists indicates a significant change in police work. Stelmack helped develop this plan in 1994. It mandates assessments of community needs, citizen surveys, and creation of policing plans tailored to the district. It sets targets: a reduction of robberies by x percent, for example. It's up to police executives to understand their communities, and to work with the beat cops to figure out how to achieve the targets. They will be graded on how well they execute the plan.

All of this is new to police management. Stelmack relates it to corporations striving to better serve their customers. He has visited companies such as McCormick and DuPont to learn about their strategic planning. PELP coursework such as Management Decisions: Judgment and Tools, taught by Peter Petersen, Hopkins professor of management, teaches the police how corporations respond to public demand, and how they plan for the future.

"We never thought we had customers," Stelmack says. "But the community is our customer."

Major Michael Stelmack chats with students at the Milford Mill Academy.
DURING HIS TWO YEARS IN PELP, Dreher, the D.C. homicide commander, has most appreciated the contacts he's made. In class and after, members of various city and county departments trade notes, exchange ideas, and pool data. Dreher can apply his greater appreciation of the problems other agencies face when he works with multiple departments in trying to solve a murder in the District. Because the District is small, its homicide cops often end up working with police from neighboring jurisdictions in Maryland and Virginia.

"Police work has traditionally been very parochial," Greenberg says. "Our program seeks to break down some of the barriers that exist between departments. We've literally come together to solve crimes. The program's students are almost like a family by the time they're done. Those relationships continue long after graduation."

Official PELP polo shirts are a popular item of apparel among the cops in class. They razz each other with the chiding humor that seems to be a mainstay of police squad rooms. PELP participants and graduates still number fewer than 100, so they form an exclusive club, of sorts, according to Dreher. If someone else from the program calls him for help, he'll give the call special attention, knowing that attention will be returned when he needs assistance.

GREENBERG SAYS THAT PELP has begun to attract notice around the country. Various agencies, including the U.S. Justice Department, are turning to it for research assistance, funding projects on sexual harassment in police training academies, the effects of legalized gambling on law enforcement, and the use of photo arrays in criminal investigations. Cops in PELP become graduate researchers; not that long ago, "police research" would not have extended much beyond the morning sports page.

"Police officers need to be more liberally educated than they've ever been," Vicchio says. He notes that cops increasingly want their work to be regarded as a profession. "If policing is really going to be a profession," he says, "then police have to make a commitment to education that they haven't made in the past."

Stelmack agrees. "When I started, they taught me how to fill out a report, do mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, and drive a police car in an emergency. Then they said, 'God bless, see you later.' Now, we need to be hiring people who have the temperament to deal with society. They have to be open-minded. They have to deal with people from different classes, different backgrounds, different ethnic groups. They have to have excellent oral communication skills and be able to write. They have to come on board with some understanding of technology. They have to be able to mediate. And they have to be problem solvers.

"The point is, where will you be in five years? How will you cope with new problems? Because the problem isn't what's biting you in the rear now. The problem is what will be biting you in the rear five years from now."

Dale Keiger is the magazine's senior writer.