By Ronnell Higgins
Yale Police Chief
On the fateful day that President John Kennedy was assassinated, he was prepared to give a speech in which he planned to say that “leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Nearly two years ago, I decided I wanted to go back to school. Our department had been part of a high-profile case involving the son of a New York Times columnist, which I have written about before.
That situation took me out of my comfort zone. I realized that police chiefs are all one major incident away from no longer being the police chief. I write that very candidly, and I also write that knowing that Yale University supported my department and me in that situation.
I did not fear for my job. But I felt I needed to challenge myself in case I chose to do something later in my career.
Plus, one of the pillars of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing focused upon the need for leaders to continue their educational training.
For me though, this would not be about training. It would be about education.
Naturally, like most police chiefs, I took a look at law schools. Being in Southern Connecticut gave me a lot of options at some good schools with night programs that could fit my schedule.
But for me, I knew I never wanted to actually practice law. Factor that in with the financial investment of law school and it just was not worth it.
A friend of mine who found himself in a similar situation suggested taking a look at The Naval Post Graduate School Center for Homeland Security Defense and Security programs. I was immediately interested in a Master of Arts in security studies from the NPS Center for Homeland Defense and Security in Monterey, Calif.
I knew it was tough to get into the school. But two aspects attracted me: If you were fortunate enough to get in, the government pays the tuition, and secondly, Homeland Security is a relatively new level of discipline with a lot of room to explore and grow into.
Fortunately, I was accepted. I had the complete support of the university, and I also have a strong team of assistant chiefs who could lead the department while I was gone two weeks of every quarter over the 18-month program.
Let me tell you something, it was critical that I had my assistant chiefs to run the show because during the two weeks per quarter that I was in California, there was no way I could have been chief from afar.
The program is that intense. But as challenging as each day was, they were all collectively invigorating.
All 28 of us that entered the program brought a variety of experiences within our individual sectors. There were students from Customs and Border Protection, Secret Service, Coast Guard, a prosecutor, TSA analysts, and of course other law enforcement.
It was an eclectic but very fascinating group who each had much to offer. And then to be taught by the best in the field was an amazing experience.
To truly succeed in the class, it has to about learning – it’s not just about passing it. That enables you to take in all that you learn and apply all those thoughts to writing a thesis.
I chose to write about the intersection of higher learning and homeland security. I had a specific interest based on an experience our department had when we considered adding someone to the Joint Terrorism Task Force.
We had participated in the JTTF after 9/11 when everyone was supportive of the idea of homeland security. But we hadn’t had an officer take part in it since 2008 and I felt there was a need.
After the 2001 terror attacks, everyone was on board with homeland security. But 16 years later, times had changed.
Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ended or subsided. The post-9/11 monitoring of Muslim mosques and other perceived negative incidents angered people. Couple all of that post-Ferguson, post-militarization of police, and it now meant I was faced with a different era in influencing the powers that be to be able to assign staff to the JTTF.
Nevertheless, I prevailed. But it raised a question for me: How many other campus police chiefs have been reluctant or simply not engaging in Homeland Security enterprises (such as fusion centers) because of public sentiment or the belief that their involvement can cause problems?
So I decided that one of the things that I could contribute was to write a thesis that provided police chiefs with the requisite and relevant information for them to make informed decisions.
In addition to that, I can provide chiefs and administrators with information that highlights the value of participating and what they stand to lose or not achieve by not having someone involved.
The experience has been amazing but is something that I could only accomplish with the assistance of so many people around me.
I had support universitywide. I had writing coaches. When it came to my technology class, I had a whole team dedicated to that. When it came to writing policy, I had someone who specialized in it.
I will also say, you have to have the support of your family. This is my wife’s second go around with me – I went to the FBI Academy when our kids were 1 and 3. I was gone for 10 weeks. Fortunately, she is a retired New Haven sergeant and she understood the value and commitment.
I am still writing my thesis now. Recently, I was asked how much time I had to put into the program. The answer was easy: not enough.
Yet still, there were more Saturdays and Sundays spent writing than I can even remember. I read more books in the program than I had read in the past 20 years.
The reward, though, makes it all worth it.
If you are considering post-graduate studies but aren’t certain about it, don’t do it because it is a commitment professionally and personally. There were times when you are going to ask yourself, what have I gotten myself into?
But if you are a chief who likes a challenge, wants to grow, change the lens with how you see things (not darker or lighter or thicker, but clearer), if you want to question things more, and understand the frame of what you are reading or seeing, if you want to make sense out of complex situations, this type of program is for you.
There is no question that I am not the same chief. I read much more critically, my writing has improved exponentially, and I have learned how to read more effectively.
I am better at my job now, but more important, I am better prepared for any challenges that come before me.
Ronnell Higgins, Director of Public Safety and Chief of Police at Yale University, is an executive fellow with The Police Foundation. Chief Higgins recently graduated with a master’s degree from the Naval Post Graduate Center for Homeland Security and Defense (2017), has a Bachelor of Science in law enforcement administration from the University of New Haven and he is a 2006 graduate of the FBI’s National Academy.