Islander Criminal Justice Program Debunks Crime in Prime-Time

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Standing over a computer screen, a detective asks a laboratory technician to zoom in on a blurry image of a crime suspect. As the image appears, the technician enhances the once-pixelated face into a clear image of easily recognizable contours and textures. After a few seconds, the database finds a match. The detective yells, “That’s it, we got the perp!” And the scene cuts to commercial.

While prime-time TV shows would have us believing it only takes one hour to solve a crime, Dr. Wendi Pollock, associate professor of criminal justice at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, knows that’s not the case and has made it her mission to prepare the next generation of real-life criminal justice heroes.

“Most of our students come to us with a faulty concept of the criminal justice system framed by what they see on TV dramas or the 10 o’clock news,” shared Pollock. “On TV, crime equals violence, but in real life, crime is everything from jaywalking to graffiti to speeding tickets.” 

While some reports show that up to 75 percent of prime-time TV shows are crime-related, only about 17 percent of your real-life neighbors and friends interact with the police on an annual basis. It’s misconceptions like these that Pollock expands on in her class, Crime in the Media.

“It’s not all leather jackets, romantic tension, and hypermasculine jumping out of buildings,” joked Pollock. “Also, there aren’t endless budgets for fancy cars or the latest high-tech gadgets. Good police work is actually a lot of paperwork.”

When Pollock first arrived at the Island University in 2015, she spent four months researching serial murder investigations to teach a class on the specific topic. It took two semesters to realize there wasn’t enough material to make the course relevant to today’s criminal justice students.

“I calculated how many offenses serial killers committed globally, how many operated within the United States, and how many offenses are known,” said Pollock. “It’s a miniscule amount of crime overall.”

In one of Pollock’s favorite lectures, she compares Jeffrey Dahmer, the “Milwaukee Cannibal,” to Rosa Parks, a civil rights activist. Often, students label Dahmer as a criminal, but view Parks as a hero, even though both persons were considered criminals in the moment.

“As society changes, so does the definition of crime,” said Pollock. “For example, things that were illegal at one time, like alcohol or homosexuality, aren’t anymore. Crime is not universal either. What we consider criminal may not be illegal in another country, and vice versa.”  

It’s true that it’s possible to enter the field of criminal justice by attending an 18-week academy, but Pollock emphasizes that a higher-level degree is recommended, if not necessary, for advancement.

“Contemporary policing is data-driven,” said Pollock. “Federal agencies require a four-year degree. Other positions, such as criminal psychologists or forensic scientists, will need graduate or doctoral degrees.”

Beyond the classroom, Islander criminal justice students are exposed to a variety of aspects of the system, like crime-scene simulations, interactions with field professionals, and internship opportunities with local agencies.

Emily Lopez, a first-generation college student majoring in criminal justice at the Island University, completed a three-month summer internship with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice where she gained hands-on experience working with parole officers.

“On TV, they make it seem like you can get a warrant in five minutes, but I learned that it’s a process involving a lot of paperwork and going through the proper channels,” shared Lopez, who is also minoring in social work. “I chose criminal justice because I grew up in a high-crime area and I wanted to be on the right side of the law so I could make a positive impact in my community.”

The Criminal Justice program at the Island University has grown to include more than 450 students, which is equivalent to a 32 percent jump in the last five years data was collected. After graduation, Islander criminal justice grads have a high success rate in finding employment in their field and are leaders in key criminal justice agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Texas Department of Public Safety, U.S. Border Patrol, and the Corpus Christi Police Department.