Careers in University Public Safety

May is Public Safety month at University of Maryland University College’s (UMUC) Office of Career Services. Throughout the month, we are highlighting the University’s public safety experts to examine career and industry trends, and provide students and alumni a chance to learn about different career paths within this industry.

Robert Mueck headshotRecently, Director of Public Safety at St. John’s College and UMUC Adjunct Faculty Robert Mueck answered questions about career trends and opportunities in university law enforcement and public safety. Mueck is currently the Director of Public Safety at St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD. Beforehand, he spent over a year as the Police Training Coordinator for the George Washington University and the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area. There he ran a number of training programs, to include a police academy, supervisor development program, and an instructor development program.

Mueck retired as a Captain from the University of Maryland Police in College Park with 29 years of service. There he served as Patrol Commander, Emergency Manager and as Training Director for the Police Academy. He was instrumental in the creation of the Threat Management Program in 2000 and managed the program for more than 13 years.

A member of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators (IACLEA) and InfraGard – a partnership between the FBI and the private sector, an association of persons who represent businesses, academic institutions, state and local law enforcement agencies dedicated to sharing information and intelligence to prevent hostile acts – Mueck serves as the chair of the Physical Threat SIG of the Maryland Chapter. He also serves on the Maryland Governor’s Workgroup for Active Aggressor Response.

Mueck is an adjunct faculty member in Homeland Security and Public Safety Administration at the University of Maryland University College, and has a master’s degree from the University of Maryland University College and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland College Park.

Q. With the increased number of campus crime incidents over the last several years, campus public safety has unique challenges. In most traditional campuses, adolescents are away from home for the first time and face the stress of both academic and social situations. How do campus public safety administrators proactively try to diffuse future situations? If a specific situation escalates, how do you interact with local enforcement to isolate and control the incident?

A. Traditionally, higher education issues range from the age of the student to issues of mental health. This is the natural growing process of our college-aged youth, who are discovering themselves in new environments, many times for the first time free from their parents. Those working in higher education understand the unique needs of our campus communities, as it isn’t only about the educational programs, but also about the learning process of life in general. Like any other community, campus communities deserve protection. We expect that anywhere we live and work, and higher education is no different. It is a different kind of community, and in public safety I call it “non-traditional policing.” One of the unique issues is that higher education has requirements that no one else has, in the form of federal mandates (such as the Clery Act). The Clery Act makes requirements of colleges and universities in the United States that are found nowhere else in society. All institutions of higher education are required to have emergency alert capability, and must publish an annual security report (ASR) that provides crime statistics and fire information, as well as policies on everything from sexual assault to crime in general and services available to the campus community. What is interesting is that public safety in a higher education environment runs the gamut of sworn law enforcement to non-sworn public safety officers or security officers. Yet the Clery Act mandate applies to everyone equally, no matter their official law enforcement status. So it requires campus officials to get information from local law enforcement, but makes no requirement of local law enforcement to provide that information. It can be frustrating at times, but that is where collaboration and leadership come into play.

In regard to defusing situations, just about all campuses now have threat assessment teams. I was directly involved in creating a threat assessment program within the University Police at UMD in 1999. A short time later, we formed an interdisciplinary team of university officials to look at our “students of concern” and make sure we help them as best we could. After the shootings in Virginia Tech, it became a standard for everyone in higher education, because there are signs that people may be escalating and looking at violence as a means to an end. In my experience, people in these kinds of issues are usually suffering from some kind of crisis, and once engaged properly, they learn to work their ways through and look for alternatives to violence. The value of such a threat assessment team is beyond measure, and over the years we had numerous successes that we were quite proud of. And sometimes, the decision was to specifically not have law enforcement engage with the person, but rather have someone else. Law enforcement was present, but only to monitor that the situation didn’t require an immediate police response. We always balance the needs of the public safety with the civil liberties of the individual, and there are times it can be quite difficult. And again, relationships with our off-campus peers proved a great help in asking local law enforcement to assist with someone who might present a threat.

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Q. What career paths could one pursue working in campus public safety?

A. Higher education is a bit more limited than traditional public safety, but there are still several options available. These include security, policing, safety (environmental and occupational), emergency management, fire sciences, investigations, and physical security. At the core of this all, however, is leadership and engagement with students and the community at large.

Q. What inspired you to pursue a career path in public safety? What education path did you pursue? How did you begin your career?

A. I am an Army brat, and after high school I wanted to join the Army. My father and I agreed that I would attend college and I joined the Army Reserve while an undergraduate, allowing me to meet two goals at once. I was not sure of what I wanted originally, and changed majors from History to Journalism and then to Criminal Justice. I found a connection in Criminal Justice that was similar to military, but still different. More I studied, the more I liked it. So that became my focus, and after I received my B.A., I got hired, attended the police academy, and fell in love with policing.

I wanted to move into a leadership position, so I focused on that. I became certified as a police instructor through the state and returned to college at UMUC and worked on my Master’s Degree. I loved my graduate experience there, and as I made way up the ranks, I enjoyed applying lessons from grad school on the job. I have to say that what I learned at UMUC was extremely powerful, and I’m forever grateful that I attended when I did.

Q. How have some of your career experiences shaped you into the professional you are today?

A. I understand what it is be an officer on the road, and enforcing laws that sometimes even you don’t agree with. I learned a lot in law enforcement, and my personal interests motivated me to keep current on issues. But of particular experiences, there were a few that shaped me professionally. My time as a criminal investigator (detective) taught me a lot about working with victims of crimes, especially sexual assault investigations and other crimes of violence. That was reinforced later when I got involved in threat assessments and learned how people engaged each other and escalated in violence.

As a police instructor, I learned to make training programs meaningful for the officers. I felt they needed to know more than just the material; they needed to understand why it was important and how it applied to their jobs. And then it had to be delivered properly so they could be engaged in the training process.

But the most important was my general interactions with people as a supervisor and a manager. The skills I developed there drew from my own experiences, and the leadership and interpersonal skills I learned from others around me, not to mention my training and education.  The one lesson in all of that is that I’m always learning. And I think that’s the secret to being a good supervisor or leader. Be willing to learn, and sometimes, just listen to your people.

Q. What personality and character traits must campus public safety professionals possess?

A. Public Safety on a college campus is really no different than anywhere else, but it does come with an understanding that we are operating in a non-traditional environment. Traditionally, communities change slowly, and people live their lives in communities that have individual identities. On a campus, there is an annual turnover in people with each incoming class of freshmen, the population always stays young as you age yourself, and you are not the main mission of the institution but a support function to allow the institution to function. Understanding how your position fits into that is important.

But in the end, you have to remember that you are dealing with people. These people may be suspects who need to be taken into custody, they may be victims of violent crime, or even victims of minor crimes who respond as if their life has ended. Knowing when to show empathy and when not to give is important. There are times where words fail, and an officer has to use force. When that happens, the officer has to use the force necessary with the confidence their training brings. Honesty is paramount, and transparency important.

I’ve made arrests for charges that were minor, and while I found it distasteful, I did my job. I even befriended a person I arrested once. I’ve had my gun pointed at people on a few occasions, and as ready as I was to pull the trigger, I thank God I never had to do that.  My father explained to me once that as an officer, I needed to focus on my job. No matter how bad the person is that I arrest, my job was simple – take him into custody with the minimal amount of force necessary, and treat that person as a human being. Everyone deserved to be treated as a human, because once you forget that, your actions will take you away from your mission. Leave the punishment and prosecution to the courts and corrections. Focus on the law enforcement mission, and stay true to your job. That was the best advice I ever received, and that what everyone in public safety needs to keep in mind.

Q. What advice would you give UMUC students entering this field?

A. Your degree is only the start, albeit an important one. In today’s world, experience matters as well, and internships and volunteer opportunities are the way to go. Look for organizations that relate to the job you are seeking and join one or two as a student member. There you get to network with people that are already in the field or the organization you are seeking. The ability to assist in projects or programs can pay huge dividends later, and certainly makes a good look to your resume. If you don’t have something in your area, see if there is a community based group that may related to your interests, or ask about volunteering at your local police, fire, or emergency management agency. One simple thing to check is if there is a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) in your area, where you can get hands-on practical experience in cases of emergencies.

There are training opportunities that are free, such as the FEMA Emergency Management Institute. These are all web-based, and can add to your degree program. In fact, in some of the classes I teach, we already require some of these FEMA classes.

In Maryland, the Governor has an Office on Volunteerism, which is another opportunity to contribute to the community and perhaps network with people working in the field you are looking for a career.

Set your goals high, you can do more than you think. Make a plan – maybe at the local level, and if you want to go big (say at the Federal level) make your move. And keep in mind that what you post on social media could impact your employment later, so keep things in check there.

Q. For UMUC students and alumni already working in the field, what advice would you give them on how to keep advancing within the industry?

A. Go to grad school! So many people now have college degrees that you can make yourself stand out by getting a masters’ degree. When I did, and found it was an amazing experience that really opened me up. I think I got more out of Grad school than I did from my undergraduate experience.

Engagement and collaboration are key. Network with others in your field by joining a professional organization. Professional organizations usually have trade journals that allow you to read up on issues and trends in your field, so you stay abreast of what is happening. Knowing about best practices allows you to make valuable contributions in the work place and can help you on your career path. And as far as those journals go – you can contribute yourself. Author an article or write an editorial for the periodical of your choice. People may look at you as a subject matter expert, and suddenly your opinion may count more it usually does.

Q. Any final thoughts or recommendations you want to share with UMUC students and alumni currently working in the field?

A. Enjoy your education. I was amazed at how much I enjoyed mine. College Park was great, and I had just as good a time at UMUC. Read, write, teach, and continue to learn. It never ends. Keep expanding your mind and strive to make your organization better than what it was when you got there. Years from now, no one will remember you. But those people you worked with will, and there is nothing like hearing how much people appreciated your service.

Lastly, May 15th is National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Day (often referred to as Police Week). National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend is held every October. There are a number of events to honor those who lost their lives in the service to their communities. Public Safety is a career fraught with danger, and unfortunately, there are times that members of the public safety community make the ultimate sacrifice. The last year has been particularly difficult, and the ceremonies seem especially poignant. I worked Police Week for several years, and was continually reminded that it is still an honorable profession. Public Safety is a noble profession, and I appreciate the sacrifice made by so many.

For more information on career opportunities and resources available to UMUC students and alumni from the Office of Career Services, click here.

Jennifer Tomasovic is the director, Communications for Career Services and Alumni Relations at University of Maryland University College. She has spent her 15 year career crafting communications strategies and messages using both marketing and public relations tactics enhancing the brand and reputation for both the clients and organizations she represents.