Criminology alumni making impact in civilian roles in St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department

Criminology alumni

Criminology alumni (from left) Will Werner, Sherri Schaefer and Emily Blackburn occupy prominent civilian positions at the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, supporting the work of their commissioned colleagues. (Photo by August Jennewein)

At the front line of crime control and prevention in St. Louis are the officers patrolling the city’s streets.

But the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department leans heavily on civilian staffers for planning, analysis and technical support to try to ensure their commissioned colleagues are being used as efficiently as possible.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that alumni from the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri–St. Louis – long considered one of the country’s most respected graduate programs – have found their way into prominent positions.

Among them are Emily Blackburn, who manages the crime analysis unit; Sherri Schaefer, who serves as the department’s application development manager; and Will Werner, who for most of the past six years has worked in its planning division.

All three have earned master’s degrees at UMSL, and Schaefer is currently pursuing her PhD. They each credit UMSL for teaching them tools they need to succeed and grow in their careers.

“I think it teaches you to think,” Blackburn said. “I think that’s the strongest thing. This is a job where I can teach you the steps on how to do stuff, but if you can’t make those leaps analytically, then you’re really no good to me.

“When you start going into these post-graduate classes and you have to write papers – even some of the qualitative and quantitative stats classes ­ you really have to do research design and think and figure things out.”

It was a case of serendipitous timing that brought Blackburn to the police department right as the crime analysis unit was getting off the ground.

She’d been living in south Florida and working as a Medicaid fraud analyst in the state attorney general’s office after finishing her master’s degree at UMSL in 2001.

Her husband, Dennis Mares, another UMSL CCJ graduate, got offered a position as an assistant professor in the criminal justice department at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville in 2007.

About the time Blackburn started looking for jobs in the St. Louis area, Mares got an email on an old UMSL listserve alerting him to a job opening in the police department’s just-created crime analysis unit.

Blackburn made a strong candidate having already done some training with one of the police departments in Florida in crime analysis. She was well suited for the work.

“You have to be a little bit fearless,” Blackburn said. “Not in the sense of being out in the street, but it’s like putting together one of those 500-piece puzzles where it’s like ocean or leaves. You know it all goes together, but it’s really hard to find the pieces that fit.

“It’s my job to try to find the pieces that fit so that we can tease the patterns out and make sure our officers are in the right place at the right time. You have to make some analytical leaps, and you have to make some guesses. I’ve found that some people, especially people who haven’t stayed here a long time, were reticent to make those leaps because you are allocating police manpower.”

Technological changes in the past decade, including enhanced software that organizes everything known about a crime on a map, has made it easier and more efficient to track crime patterns. It doesn’t matter if it’s for robbery, assault or homicide.

Further developments have the potential to make it easier for the analytical leaps taken by Blackburn and others to be applied on patrol. That includes software that could sound a ping on an officer’s in-car computer when he or she is driving through a so-called hot spot and provide details on what he or she should be looking out for.

“I think it will give us the potential to target the right folks at the right time,” Blackburn said. “It’s my hope that we’ll improve our community relations while at the same time getting the right bad guys.”

Schaefer’s job as the application development manager is to oversee the programmers and systems analysts supporting the software needed by Blackburn and everyone else in the department organizational chart.

“Any time a crime occurs in the city of St. Louis, the citizen reporting the crime – by the time the crime goes from the initial 911 call through the application to the prosecuting attorney, you’ve probably hit at least seven systems that are supported by my group,” she said.

Schaefer’s spent 19 years with the department, navigating to the information technology sector after beginning her career as a planner.

“I found I could do lots of exciting work and could really be able to make big changes by taking the job in IT,” said Schaefer, who had shown an aptitude for technology by first learning how to do desktop mapping.

The department was still working with a mainframe computer when she was hired in 1998. She was around to see the introduction of email. And she’s witnessed far more advances since then, including replacing the 911 system, the police reporting system and, more recently, redoing the internal affairs system.

Schaefer earned bachelor’s degrees in sociology and criminology and criminal justice from UMSL in 1994. She spent two years doing graduate work in the former at the University of Minnesota only to return to her hometown, first serving as as consultant for the St. Louis Development Corporation and eventually moving to the police department.

It was only after more than a decade there that she decided to go back to school once more for a doctoral degree in criminology and criminal justice.

“I think one of the reasons I went back for the PhD is I saw this gap between the practitioners in the criminal justice system and the researchers,” said Schaefer, who earned a master’s along the way in 2014. “Both groups bring a set of characteristics and skills to the table that can be very beneficial to citizens. I think bridging that gap and ensuring we’re making partnerships between researchers and practitioners is really important to me.”

For her dissertation, Schaefer has been researching the role of repeat victimization in explaining overall crime and whether it’s the same across different neighborhoods.

“It’s a really important topic so that we get the most bang for our crime prevention dollars,” she said. “If the causal mechanisms for overall crime and repeat victimization are the same, you might use your dollars to best fight the overall causes of crime. But if there’s something different about repeat victims, then your dollars might be better spent focused on those victims.”

She, coincidentally, has had a front-row seat to the technological advances that make it easier for police to identify repeat victims and hopefully intercede on their behalf.

Werner was raised in a family with long-standing connections to the police department. His grandfather was an officer. He had aunts and other family members who worked in civilian roles in the crime lab or dispatch center.

But he didn’t know anything about the world of planning and research in police departments before starting graduate school.

UMSL’s program not only exposed him to the field, but also taught him the tools needed to be successful at it.

He pointed specifically to an evaluation course taught by Finn Esbensen that Werner took as an elective, despite its challenging reputation. He learned about research design and how to put together a grant proposal and saw how much research can be applied to the real world.

Werner’s job often has him speaking to counterparts in other departments across the country and evaluating practices it might be wise to implement in St. Louis.

“There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel if there’s something out there that’s doing a really good job already with maybe a couple different tweaks here and there,” Werner said. “So I think the bulk of what we do is just try to figure out what’s out there. It’s similar to doing a lit review in graduate school, just trying to make our best decision on recommendations for the department based on what we’re seeing in the data and the information that we’re able to pick up from other places.”

It’s up to senior command staff to decide whether to adopt those ideas.

One of Werner’s other tasks is to write proposals for federal grants.

“Just all kinds of different types of assistance, whether it be for equipment or whether it be to fund programs that we’re trying to roll out,” he said. “Essentially, whatever we can do to try to help bolster the police department and its services.”

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