Behind the badge: Preparing students for careers in Criminal Justice

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You’re in your patrol car. The radio crackles: there’s a possible armed robbery in progress at a convenience store. You get out of your car,  your weapon drawn. It’s chaotic; people are screaming and running from the store. You see someone turn toward you. He reaches into his coat and pulls out … what? A gun? A cell phone? You have a split second to react. Do you shoot?

Students in SFCC’s Criminal Justice (CJ) program get the chance to react to scenarios like this before they encounter them on the job, thanks to a computerized, interactive firearms simulator unit in use since April.

The unit is comprised of a computer, camera and simulated handguns that shoot lasers. It is designed to help students better understand the split-second decision-making skills needed by law enforcement officers on a daily basis.

“People in criminal justice careers need to be level headed, calm under pressure and able to make quick, rational decisions, says James D. Cunningham, Criminal Justice program coordinator and instructor at SFCC. “We want to show students how difficult it can be to make decisions in the field and how quickly they have to react. We want them to understand potential consequences and outcomes of related behavior.”

The unit includes more than 600 scenario options ranging from a few seconds to a minute. School shootings, armed robberies, domestic violence, disgruntled employees or customers, situations involving canines, and even terrorism scenarios can be used in the hands-on training, says Cunningham. It will be used in the curriculum for almost all CJ classes.

“We can choose the scenario and can change what happens in it—whether a subject pulls a weapon or a cell phone. “We give students a pretty realistic look at situations they might face.”

The simulator described above is just one example of the technology and hands-on learning approaches available to students in SFCC’s Criminal Justice program. It is one of the largest programs at SFCC with almost 200 declared CJ majors.

Criminal Justice Careers 
Police detectives and criminal investigators
Median wages (2014) $30.35 hourly $63,100 annually
Police and sheriff patrol officers 
Median wages (2014) $20.77 hourly $43,200 annually
Probation and parole officers
Median wages (2014) $17.56 hourly $36,500 annually
Correctional officers and jailers
Median wages (2014) $13.96 hourly $29,000 annually

Source:, Missouri wage information

Think a career in criminal justice is right for you? Enroll now! For more information, go to or contact Cunningham at (660) 596-7367 or [email protected].

Preparing for the future

SFCC’s CJ curriculum includes 13 courses offered on a rotating basis, including Introduction to Criminal Justice, Juvenile Delinquency, Criminal Law, Introduction to Law Enforcement, Criminal Investigation, Social Problems, Criminology, and Introduction to Corrections. Upper-level students may also participate in a practicum occupational course to experience firsthand the operations of a working criminal justice or affiliated agency.

SFCC offers a choice of degrees and locations; classes are offered on the Sedalia campus, at SFCC-Boonville, SFCC-Clinton, SFCC-Lake of the Ozarks, and online:

An Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree is a two-year program designed to give you hands-on skills for an entry-level career—jobs like police officer, deputy sheriff, corrections officer, or highway patrol officer.

An Associate of Arts (AA) transfer degree will fulfill your general education requirements and prepare you for transfer to a four-year college or university. The AA is excellent for students who want to go into juvenile work, probation and parole, become paralegals, go into federal law enforcement, or go on to law school.

Students also can earn a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice on the SFCC-Sedalia, Clinton and Lake of the Ozarks campuses from Central Methodist University (CMU).

A range of skills and opportunities  

Criminal justice careers with good pay and job security are available at the local, state and federal levels, both in government and the private sector. Specialty areas include law enforcement, probation and parole, juvenile justice, law, jail and prison corrections, agency administration, victim advocacy, emergency communications, and forensic investigations.

Job opportunities are competitive and agencies are selective about the caliber of people they hire, says Cunningham. Students need to have good communication skills, both written and verbal, and strong cognitive skills to understand laws and court cases.

SFCC’s program offers students an excellent resource in its adjunct instructors. Six adjunct instructors who work in law enforcement teach CJ classes on the Sedalia campus and online, bringing real-world information and insights. Adjuncts also teach at other SFCC locations.

15-Sheriff Bond

Sheriff Bond

Kevin Bond, adjunct instructor at SFCC and Sheriff of Pettis County

Q: What do you teach at SFCC?

A: Introduction to Law Enforcement, Criminal Justice Communications, others as needed

Q: What does CJ Communications entail?

A: It teaches students the dynamics of criminal justice report writing based on law enforcement and corrections reports. We use real-world scenarios and have them compile information from several sources to put together reports. We also cover verbal communication with the public, interviews and interrogation, radio communication systems, and computer transfer of information both in office and between agencies. There’s a lot of work involved, but it’s actually a really fun class. Students find it refreshing.


15-Chief DeGonia-35

Chief DeGonia

John DeGonia, adjunct instructor at SFCC and Chief of Police of Sedalia

Q: What do you teach at SFCC?

A: Introduction to Criminal Justice, Introduction to Law Enforcement, Investigations, others as needed

Q: What do the courses entail?

A: Intro courses give an overview of the field. Often students don’t realize what’s really involved in the day-to-day work. I ask, “How many of you like typing and writing book reports?” Almost nobody raises a hand. When I tell them law enforcement officers spend 40 to 50 percent of their time writing reports, they’re shocked. I’d rather they learn in the first couple courses whether or not it’s a good fit. Maybe they want to stay in the field, but not as police officers.

Q: What does your job entail?

A: I tell people I wear asbestos booties because I’m always stomping out fires. You have to make sure you’re looking out for the city’s best interests and the officers’ best interests. You lead people and try to help them grow and achieve their goals, and educate citizens about what the job involves.

Q: How does SFCC’s program prepare students for the field?

A: All CJ adjuncts are practitioners, so students get a firsthand look at what we do. We get lots of questions about why we do things. We answer with facts and eliminate rumors and misconceptions they may have.

Q: What advice would you give students wishing to enter the field?

A: Invest the time to see if it’s really what you want to do. Take time to do a ride-along, talk to officers and learn all you can. If you’re going to spend a lifetime in this career, make sure it’s what you want to do.

Q: What does your job entail?

A: I am the chief law enforcement agent of the county. It’s the only elected position, so I’m directly accountable to the people. I am responsible for three main things: 1) I am a servant of the court; whatever the court needs, I make sure it’s carried out. 2) I am the keeper of the county’s 210-bed jail; it’s my job to keep the community safe by keeping those who have committed crimes away from the public while treating them humanely. 3) We serve and protect the citizens, which is a huge part of the job … criminal investigations, traffic calls, calls for service. Practically speaking? I have 75 employees who work here, so most of the day-to-day operation is administrative in nature.

Q: How does SFCC’s program prepare students for the field?

A: The AAS degree is a more direct route to entry-level positions. But we also prepare students to go on to four-year institutions. It’s a well-rounded program that gives students good exposure to what Criminal Justice has to offer. We try to give students a reality check about what it’s really like to be in the field. When they leave class at the end of the semester, they have a much different impression of what really goes on than when they walked in the first day of class.

Q: What advice would you give students wishing to enter the field?

A: Study hard and keep pursuing their education. The more education and experience they can get, the more likely they are to land a good position. It has always been a competitive career field, and I don’t see that changing.

15-Melanie Hare

Melanie Hare

Melanie Hare, adjunct instructor (online) and Missouri Probation and Parole Officer II

Q: What do you teach at SFCC?

A: Introduction to Law Enforcement, Introduction to Criminal Justice

Q: What do the courses entail?

A: Introduction to Criminal Justice provides an overview of the criminal justice system and covers its three main components: law enforcement, the court system and corrections. Introduction to Law Enforcement is more in depth; it looks at the jobs available on the local, state and federal level—jail custody officer, school resource officer, patrolman, and investigator. We talk about the issues law enforcement officers face, like burnout and stress. I encourage students to talk to law enforcement officers, and ask them what their expectations were and what they’ve learned. They need to get out there and network so they can see what’s going on in the real world compared to what they’re learning in their coursework.

Q: What does your job entail?

A: I supervise clients placed on probation by the court and those who have been released on parole by the Department of Corrections. I report on the status of their supervision, whether they’re abiding by the stated conditions and report any violations so action can be taken if necessary. I also do assessment reports on clients’ backgrounds for the court before sentencing, and I’m a referral source for clients to connect with resources in the community to address substance abuse, anger management or mental health issues.

Q: How does SFCC’s program prepare students for the field?

A: It gives them an overview of what careers are available in the criminal justice system. It’s a great program; the various courses give students a well-rounded view of the field.

Q: What advice would you give students wishing to enter the field?

A: Take a couple classes and see if the coursework interests you. Contact people who work in the field. Do an internship where you get hands-on experience; it will help you determine if that’s the direction you want to go.

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