Degree Program Leads the Way in Law Enforcement/Public Safety Leadership Education

Degree Program Leads the Way in Law Enforcement/Public Safety Leadership Education

Good things come to those who wait, and that’s especially true when the good is something critically beneficial to all communities nationwide.

Associate Professor of Sociology Erik Fritsvold, PhD, is certainly a believer now. The lead academic creator of the University of San Diego’s Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership (LEPSL) master of science degree program through Professional and Continuing Education (PCE) saw it launch in Fall 2015. This tremendously valuable, 100-percent online, 20-month program came to fruition after an initial, but futile, attempt by Fritsvold to recreate a master’s degree version of a criminology program he did some years ago.

“We thought let’s take it to regional stakeholders before we spend a lot of time and money. It took us about two weeks to realize I should throw it away and one hundred percent start over,” Fritsvold admitted.

Thankfully, he didn’t give up. The second attempt has been much better. Fifty interviews were conducted in 2 1/2 years, important questions were asked of highly ranked people, they listened to prospective students’ needs and understood law enforcement issues in order to address them.

Effective, Useful Leadership Program

What emerged has been one of the most effective and useful leadership programs anywhere.

It’s a combination of USD’s academic reputation in an online format that allows students the flexibility to do work around a hectic schedule, benefit from cutting-edge curriculum, uniquely qualified faculty and the program has a high-caliber student population Fritsvold says benefits from PCE’s orientation process, has been a hit.

Fritsvold’s due diligence has resulted in more than 500 students enrolled and more than 200 new USD alumni who return to roles — some in newly promoted ones — in law enforcement departments throughout California and nationally ready to be more effective leaders. Feedback from students, whose roles and years of experience vary, is overwhelmingly ecstatic about the program and what it has done for their career outlook.

“The LEPSL program offered by USD has provided me an education rooted in real-life experiences and examples. I have been able to immediately apply what I have learned to my everyday work and even my personal life,” says Vanessa Day, deputy sheriff in the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department.

“I’ve seen an increase in my ability to effectively communicate with my peers and superiors, better understand the complex relationships and discourse of the law enforcement community. I’d recommend this program to my fellow law enforcement officers, regardless of rank or experience, because the ideas and values taught throughout the program can immediately be implemented. This program has made my outlook on the future of policing more positive, and my understanding of the intricacies of the relationship between law enforcement and the community will help me make better decisions as a law enforcement officer.”

Day’s assessment isn’t the exception. It’s much more the norm.

“This program is the most contemporary and cutting-edge Law Enforcement degree offered. If you are looking to advance your career and/or advance your skills as a leader in 21st century policing you must take this course. After completing the degree, I was promoted to sergeant with the Salinas Police Department and continue to grow in my career,” says an appreciative Dale Fors.

High Rankings, Raising Awareness

It has delivered so well that the LEPSL degree is ranked by U.S. News and World Report for best online graduate criminal justice program (19th) and best online graduate criminal justice program for Veterans (10th). Two online rankings, and, rank it second and third, respectively, are for best online master’s in Law Enforcement Administration.

Rankings drive greater awareness, but so does word of mouth. Fritsvold said for every three students they’ve had in the program, two are from referrals.

“Our goal was to have 29 students in that first group,” Fritsvold said, seriously, “and we had 92 that first semester. Then it was 150 two semesters in and now it’s 229, but not just any 229 students. There’s a disproportionate number of high-ranking folks who are competing for high leadership positions.”

The reach and popularity of the program was noticeable right away.

“Our first cohort started locally and most were from the San Diego County Sheriff’s Office. The next semester our footprint got a little bigger and wider. Then it got a little wider,’ Fritsvold said. “Most of our growth has been to Central and Northern California, but I have a student right now from Ohio, I have one high-ranking person outside of Philadelphia who was in charge when the Philadelphia Eagles won the Super Bowl last year.”

Strong Curriculum, Faculty

The curriculum and faculty are two of LEPSL’s strengths. Fritsvold beams when talking about both because it helps differentiate USD’s program from others.

The 31-unit program consists of classes in public safety law, community engagement, organizational leadership, two sections of community assessment (crime/criminal justice and organizations), organizational theory and change, communications for law enforcement leaders, conflict resolution and decision-making, budget and finance for law enforcement leaders and critical issues in law enforcement and public safety. Through 10 classes and a final capstone project, he says, students learn leadership and management skills, ethical practices and legal and policy matters.

“Our job with our curriculum is to provide a point of departure,” Fritsvold said. “We are working with uniquely qualified students who have strong academic skills but also tons of perspective and experience. The ability to leverage that experience is what we’re beginning to do to the scale that it should be.”

The quality of faculty is equally essential. Students learn from experienced instructors, practitioners with advanced degrees and long-term law enforcement experience. Current faculty include a public defender, a deputy district attorney, a chief probation officer, a retired chief of public safety, multiple chiefs of police, a leadership class taught by a retired Marines Lieutenant Colonel, a Traffic Safety Commission director, a Commander from the district attorney’s office and police assistant chief, captains, lieutenants and sergeants.

Many students appreciate access to faculty and classmates to learn about others’ experiences, share knowledge and, because of the online component and the reach of students, Fritsvold says, the chance to learn about other law enforcement practices can occur.

“We have students from Colorado who have experience with recreational marijuana legalization and can talk about what agents are doing to engage in this as responsible as possible. This means students in California ask Colorado ask about their experience to be ahead of the curve and shorten their learning curve.”

Staying Current in a Faster World

The degree program also works hard to remain current in an ever-changing, faster world.

“What I’ve learned is if we’re four months out of date, we have a problem,” he said. “The landscape of these challenges is changing so quickly. I feel fortunate to have PCE because it is an agile entity. There are days I’ll walk in and I have a substantive problem to fix that day, drop something out, find the correct person or include new material because the landscape of an issue has changed, a Supreme Court case happens and overnight it changes law enforcement. There are core elements we keep for 20 months, budget principals that are going to stay pretty consistent over time, but then we use real-world data, such as this year’s budget from the San Diego Police Department. It’ll be different next year and the challenges they have will be different, too.”

The willingness to make changes, to realize the importance of topics such as technology (body cameras, drones), having leading experts on community policing among its faculty to share best practices, and understanding the importance of adding a unit for mindfulness, stress and PTSD in policing gives the program further credibility. So, too, is PCE’s learning preparedness phone call with potential students.

“They ask about the student’s time management plan. Every student has an orientation where they’ll talk about hurdles and challenges. Our job is to admit graduates, so we’d rather not take someone’s time and money if there are serious red flags about their ability to be successful. It’s not for everybody. We have the graduation rates and the academic rigor because our upfront screening is so good,” Fritsvold said. “You don't have to be in law enforcement to be in our program — we’ve got a rehabilitation counselor in our program right now, dispatchers, an EMT, who all have a lot of knowledge — but we don't want a person who just wants to get an online degree.”

Making it an online degree has proven to be the right move. It was a solid solution when interview findings revealed a woeful lack of time potential students would have to attend classes. Learning online allows students to better manage their learning. Faculty adapt, too. Shorter, interactive lectures. Every two or three days there is a deliverable due and to get the assignment they have to engage a presentation or do some reading. Students have to post a minimum of three times a week, though Fritsvold has seen students who post an average of 12 per week.

Fully engaged students means the program is doing something, or multiple things, right. That this law enforcement and public safety leadership degree attracts people working in a career field that’s constantly in the spotlight, there’s no denying that the program is doing its best to inspire Changemakers.

“USD’s program is extremely relevant and contemporary for our industry today. Law enforcement is facing challenges in terms of public perception and how we are being characterized in the media,” said Tom Bailey, a police commander in Washington state. “The master’s program at USD is dealing with those contemporary issues we, as law enforcement professionals, are facing in the field today. For example, in my last class we examined the President’s Report on 21st Century Policing. We discussed community interaction, professionalism, etc. and we get to research the important components of the report to determine how we can help shape the narrative. With all the challenges that law enforcement faces today, we have a unique opportunity to make change and improve our communities.”

— Ryan T. Blystone

Videos courtesy of USD's Professional and Continuing Education

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