What I Do in the Criminal Justice Field
By Al Fernandez, Faculty, Criminal Justice Department
I recently was asked to write an article about “what I do” and thought this would be a great platform to pass on my feelings and thoughts about having one of the greatest jobs in the world. To truly tell you what I do, I would have to explain why I do it.
Giving Back as a Patrol Officer
I became a police officer on December 16, 1985, in spite of the objections from my mother and father. They had real reservations about working in a “dangerous” field and also about my financial future. I was leaving a job as a construction manager at O’Hare Airport and this new position lowered my salary by more than half. Financially, that did not make sense to my parents. However, to me, becoming a police officer was more than just a way of making money. It was a way to repay a debt to the American people who allowed my family to immigrate to the United States from Cuba. It was a way for me to do my part to safeguard the rights given to all citizens and people who live in the United States. I took my oath of office extremely seriously, and still believe that it is the guiding light in what I do.
Over the past 30 years, I have been fortunate enough to have numerous assignments. I started out as a patrol officer, working a beat, answering calls, and looking for ways to help the community that I worked for. Patrol officers are given discretion to answer calls and solve problems. Sometimes arresting someone is not the right answer. For example, I remember a call I received about a “drive-off” from a local gas station. A young man driving a blue pickup truck left a gas station without paying for $12.50 worth of gas. I happened to be nearby and caught up to the young man as he was about to get on the highway.
As I talked to this young man, he told me that he had moved from this area to Indiana about 3 months prior. He had returned to the area to spend a weekend visiting his girlfriend, but that he had spent all his money taking her out to dinner and a movie, and now he had no money to pay for gas to go back home. I had this young man follow me back to the gas station and loaned him $20.00 to pay for the gas and to have a little extra cash for the ride home. I told him that it was a loan and that I expected repayment. Approximately a week later I received a thank you letter and $20.00. The thank you letter would have been repayment enough for me. I believe that working as a patrol officer is one of the best and most rewarding jobs anyone can have, because you are in a position to help someone when they are at the point in their lives when they need help the most.
My Work in the Gang and Narcotics Unit
I have also been fortunate enough to work in our gang and narcotics unit. This was a great high intensity, adrenaline-filled position, as I really saw the damage that drugs do to families and our country. Some may think of drug use as a personal choice that only harms the users—however, drug use destroys families and our society. The cost that we pay as a society for the destruction of dreams and families is significant.
This position was one of the most difficult for me personally because it did take a toll on my family. I worked numerous hours and weekends, as I was on call to work when “things are going on” and “things are always going on.” I missed a lot of time that I should have spent with my two young daughters. I blinked my eyes and they went from babies to teenagers. I decided at this time that I needed a normal schedule (well at least as normal of a schedule as I could get). I asked to be reassigned and was fortunate enough to be assigned to junior high schools (7th and 8th grade) as the school resource officer (SRO).
An Opportunity to be a Role Model as a School Resource Officer
As an SRO, I was responsible for acting as a liaison between the police department and the local elementary school district. I also handled all criminal and non-criminal matters in the school district. I thought this would be a little unexciting for me (especially after coming out of our gang and narcotics unit), but the schedule would be awesome. I worked the same schedule as the teachers (except for having the summers off). It turned out that it was not boring at all! As a matter of fact, it was one of the best assignments I have had the opportunity to work.
I saw that many of the children in the school had no one to talk to or ask for advice. I took this opportunity to try to be a role model and show these students that police officers are just people too. I made a lot of connections with students and their families. Some of my best friends now are families of students that I dealt with at the school. I also made connections with students who were at risk of joining gangs or committing crimes. I’d like to think that in some small way I was able to change the lives of a few of them. I have had some of those students come back to me and thank me for taking time out to talk to them and pointing out the consequences of some of their actions. This to me is truly the greatest reward anyone could ever receive. The thought that I was in a position to change a young person’s life and was able to alter their life for the better is more thanks than any monetary reward I could ever receive.
Working in an Undercover Role
Shortly after leaving the SRO position, I was assigned to a financial crimes task force that was created by U.S. Customs. The purpose of this task force was to track the money from drug sales and seize that money. One of my roles in this task force was to pose as a drug cartel money pickup man and pick up the money from dealers. Working undercover like this takes a special frame of mind and a whole lot of trust in the people to keep you safe. Planning, training, and intelligence played a huge role in the work we did. This particular job taught me to read people’s actions and body language so that I could plan my actions. The task force that I worked for seized millions of dollars that would have gone to drug cartels and prevented tons of narcotics from reaching the streets. This to me, was one of the ways that I could prevent families from being torn apart by drug use.
Solving Crimes on the Major Case Assistance Team
Once again, I found myself not spending enough time with my family. I requested to come out of this task force and a short while later I was assigned to another task force. This time, I was assigned to the Major Case Assistance Team (MCAT). MCAT is a task force that was created to investigate major crimes, typically homicides, in the Northwest suburbs of Cook County, Illinois. I was assigned as one of the investigators. This unit is truly a blueprint of how smaller suburbs should work together to solve homicides. MCAT presently has several branches, including a forensic unit, a surveillance unit, an investigations unit, a fatal crash investigation unit, and most recently an officer involved death unit. MCAT provides a member town with the manpower and expertise to truly spend the time required to investigate any major crime. On a homicide call out, they would summon 32 investigators, 24 crime scene investigators, and a command staff. Each of the members of MCAT are highly trained individuals who are experts in their fields. MCAT has a 96% clearance rate in the cases that we are called out on. This is far higher than the national clearance rate of 46.8% in violent crimes (FBI-2013).
In the 10 years that I spent working on the MCAT task force I participated in solving over 150 homicides. I specifically obtained confessions from homicide suspects in over 8 cases. The last 3 years that I spent in the unit I was one of the lead interviewers. I learned a substantial amount about interview and interrogations from some of my colleagues and from training courses. One of the things that I truly loved about working in MCAT is that we were the voice of the victim. It did not matter if the victim was a gang member or an outstanding member of the community. Our job was to obtain justice for someone who could no longer speak for themselves. One of the hardest things to do is inform someone that their loved one has been taken away from them by violence. I felt a strong need to also inform them that we had located the offender and had built a strong case against them so that the family and friends of the victim could have some closure.
After the 10 years with MCAT, I decided that it was time to start winding my career down somewhat. I asked to come out of the unit and was placed in my department’s investigations section. I currently work as a general case investigator, but my caseload is typically crimes against persons. I work cases from simple battery to predatory sexual assaults. Being able to change with the times and adapt to what technology has to offer is one reason I think that I am successful at what I do. Sometimes I find it amazing that some suspects post their feats on Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, or other social media.
Being able to help someone who has been a victim of a violent crime against them is one of the most rewarding jobs anyone can have. I have seen the look of fear, shame, or simply of not knowing what to do in victim’s faces. Knowing that I have the ability to calm their fears, tell them that what happened was not their fault, and guide them through the criminal justice system is extremely rewarding.
Recently, I was picked by the MCAT command staff to become one of ten officer involved death investigators. This unit investigates any case, within its member’s jurisdiction, that involves a death at the hands of an officer or within the lockup facility of a member jurisdiction. To me, it is a tremendous responsibility to make sure that when a police officer is called to take someone’s life, that my Unit makes sure that it was done within the confines of the law and within the department’s policy. This calls for a thorough and transparent investigation that will be scrutinized by the Justice Department and by the citizens.
I also teach for Kaplan University. Kaplan University has afforded me a way to make the criminal justice system a little better than when I first started. I am able to pass along some of the knowledge that I have gained over the past 30 years to our students. I hope that my knowledge combined with my sense of duty to our citizens will be passed on to our criminal justice students, who are, in fact, the future of the criminal justice system.
Department of Justice, UCR Crime statistics 2013, published 6-17-2013, retrieved from, https://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2012/crime-in-the-u.s.-2012/offenses-known-to-law-enforcement/clearances, retrieved on 4-2-16.
Al Fernandez is a faculty member at Kaplan University. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent the view of Kaplan University.
Local, state, and federal law enforcement jobs may require additional training or education beyond the associate’s level. You should fully research the requirements of any such position you intend to seek.