Archived Voice Articles

Criminal justice program launched

By Sally Jongsma

Students in the new criminal justice course participated in a simulated crime scene investigation during their second week of class.

Students in the new criminal justice course participated in a simulated crime scene investigation during their second week of class.

Judge Ruth” entered the classroom to the sound of the gavel for her first criminal justice class of the year. Assisted by a “primed” bailiff, she proceeded to call out students’ names, arraigning each of them on charges ranging from auto theft to shoplifting to armed robbery. After asking each of them if they had counsel, the defendants’ classmates gradually began acting as defense lawyers. But they were all “sold down the river,” says Professor Ruth Harthoorn Kocisko with a chuckle. Kocisko, a former criminal defense attorney, is an instructor in Dordt’s new criminal justice program.

“If I think a part of the textbook is boring I find a way to liven it up,” Kocisko says.

Two weeks after the courtroom scene, students in her criminal investigation class were taken outside of the building to find yellow police tape around a large area in front of the campus. They became part of a crime scene investigation, taking on assigned roles as reporters, photographers, sketchers, and detectives. Their task was to find out as much as they could about a fictitious crime for which Kocisko had planted evidence. Kocisko played the role of an FBI agent and, wearing a shirt and cap identifying her as such, coordinated the investigation. She had “come from Omaha to direct police academy students in a search to recover evidence.”

The students were taught to use the triangulation method of sketching a site. The triangulation method measures the distances from stationary objects to the crime scene, and is particularly useful in outdoor scenes.

Professor Ruth Kocisko gave her students rubber gloves and coverings for their shoes for the crime scene investigation

Professor Ruth Kocisko gave her students rubber gloves and coverings for their shoes for the crime scene investigation

“They even found evidence that I had not planted, like a piece of glass and pieces of apple, which could contain DNA. It did take two searches to recover a set of car keys, though.”

Students responded to the event in journal entries. One wrote, “I think I was expecting the evidence to be more obvious than it was,” and another, “Investigating a crime scene is much more involved than I previously thought.” Members of the class became convinced of the value of the techniques they were being taught. One wrote, “The worth of the grid search pattern was proven in our search. We were able to find a set of keys that we missed in the first pass. These keys could be a very valuable piece of evidence in catching the perpetrator,” and another wrote, “Being a crime scene investigator is a very tedious and meticulous job that requires a lot of hard work, a strong imagination, and an understanding of criminals and how they think.”

Kocisko tries to find a balance between using hands-on learning activities and presenting material. “I think any method used all the time gets old,” she says. “Teaching methods have changed for the better,” she says, citing statistics that show that doing the “real thing” or simulating real activities improves students’ retention significantly.

Kocisko is finding that she’s very busy but invigorated by the career change she’s made. She served for twenty-two years as a court- appointed defense attorney in Washington, D.C., working primarily on juvenile criminal cases and child abuse and neglect cases. And although she has not worked as a law enforcement officer, she has much to teach her students.

“Lawyers are always looking critically at the work of police officers,” she says. “I hope to train them to avoid making the mistakes that helped me win cases.”

She also wants to help students develop a perspective on law enforcement that challenges them to take seriously how their faith shapes their work as a police officer, detective, lawyer, or social worker.

“It’s sometimes hard for Christians not to feel superior,” she says, adding, “It’s really important in the criminal justice system to treat people with compassion.” In response to the many macho attitudes she’s seen in law enforcement officers, she believes that to be effective they must follow Jesus’ example of reaching out to those who are downtrodden, to treat them with dignity. She asks her class “Do you think Jesus was a wimp [for being compassionate]?

“We cannot feel that [in the criminal system] people are beneath us,” she says. “They too are made in God’s image. It’s unbiblical to act ‘holier than thou.’” She believes that having the right attitude will make a better law officer.

But it takes more than a good attitude to make a good law enforcement officer. That’s why Kocisko set up the crime scene investigation. Students have to learn to pay meticulous attention to detail and develop good work habits. The arrest rates for crimes is astoundingly low—less than eighteen percent for property crimes, twenty-six percent for robbery, forty-seven percent for rape, and sixty-three percent for criminal homicide. She is giving her students instruction not only in how evidence is gathered but in interview and interrogation techniques and writing reports so they can effectively pass on information they’ve gathered.

Kocisko is doing more than simulating crimes and courtrooms to get her students involved in real life cases. Her students are also required to read and learn everything they can on a variety of current and past high-profile cases. Students are following the Scott Petersen, Kobe Bryant, Mark Hacking, Kansas City serial murders, and Michael Jackson cases as well as reading about Ted Kaczynski, Timothy Mc Veigh, Jeffrey Dahmer, and other cases that have had much written about them.

Three weeks into the semester Judge Ruth appeared again, to help teach criminal law. Making the class the jury, Kocisko set up a case, presenting the prosecuting attorney’s case, then the defense attorney’s case, and finally sitting on the bench to give the jurors instructions. She intentionally made the case a close one so they would have to wrestle with the complexities that make up most court cases. The jury was deadlocked. An effort to come to consensus only hardened their positions. Fortunately they were “saved by the bell.” But as they left Kocisko reminded them that in real life too many hung juries are not good for anyone. The process needs to work, and they need to learn how to make it work.