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Back to Archives | Back to August 2006 Contents 

Distance Learning Is Practical—Even for Chiefs

By Charles E. Samarra, Chief of Police, Alexandria, Virginia

n today's fast-moving, politically charged world, a police chief's professional success is often measured in longevity, the number of hash marks worn on their sleeve. Most successful chief executive officers have attended and graduated from the school of hard knocks, many have taken undergraduate courses in criminal justice and obtained degrees, and all have learned much about leadership from mentors, self-directed and professional training, organizations, and publications. With age and experience they have gained the wisdom and knowledge required to build and sustain exceptional organizations in ways that less experienced leaders can only dream of. Even experienced chiefs, however, realize that their personal, professional, and organizational success depends on their ability and willingness to learn.

Five years ago, I faced a sobering professional midlife crisis. Using the instincts that we survivors have developed over the years, I knew that sustaining my police department at its current level was not acceptable. If I failed to grow and learn in meaningful ways, then my organization would be severely hindered by what would become my increasing obsolescence. Obviously, I had a much different vision for the future, one that required me to stretch myself to formulate specific goals and objectives and develop a plan of action to reignite my passion for police leadership.

I began my search for enlightenment by looking to the past. What were the things that had inspired me to pursue personal and professional excellence? That was easy: I loved the FBI Academy and many of the professional seminars and training courses that I attended during the past 35 years-what is now called lifetime learning. You know the ones: those that gave us practical information and ideas that we could really use, ideas so exciting and relevant that we could hardly wait to get back to the station to try them out.

Next, I had to decide what I wanted to learn more about. This required me to evaluate my ambitions, my vision for the future, and my commitment to be an asset to my department. Once those personal decisions were made, I knew that my job required me to be two things above all else: a leader and a communicator. I had long since concluded that these two areas encompassed 95 percent of my time and were the most important qualities needed to succeed and excel in my profession. In most organizations of 200 or more members, the need for the chief's direct technical and law enforcement involvement is generally diminished by their own staff's expertise. What is most needed from the police chief is the ability to influence, negotiate, manage, facilitate, and champion the needs of the force and community. Communication and leadership were to become my calling, one that I believed could best be served by formal validation.

The Options
It had been 20 years since I had finished my bachelor's degree in administration of justice and I had some doubts about going back to college. I remembered those long days at work and the even longer nights in class, the weekends spent on studies, and above all else the mountains of useless information that I have never been able to put into any sort of meaningful practice. Like most of my peers, I have seen hundreds of officers working hard for an advanced degree that may challenge their intellect but is completely irrelevant to what they will be asked to do in the real world of the police profession. Lastly, how could I continue to do my job, respond to routine emergencies, and then travel to class three or more times a week, sit in class for hours, and then drive home and be a family leader? In my case the answer was simple-I could not.

I turned to e-learning and distance education. The idea sounded strange to me at first, and I had visions of these institutions being diploma factories-the recent source of embarrassment to several public figures. I knew that if I were to decide on this method to facilitate my learning it had to meet certain specific criteria:

  • A highly recognized university with official accreditation

  • The professors who were a mix of Ph.D.'s and practitioners

  • Professionally diverse classes with both returning and traditional students

  • Cohort (learning team) structure

  • Non-law enforcement curriculum

  • Focus on building leaders more than producing scholars

  • Treatment of students as equals

  • None of the bureaucratic inflexibility of the average university system

I began my search for the right institution by going to the Internet, where several search engines produced a large number of institutions offering distance-learning pro-grams. It took some time to go through the list of impressive universities offering distance and online master's degrees. But the real work came with the careful examination of such details as entrance requirements, the total cost, residency requirements, testing methods, the method of course delivery, the application process, course and program content, and so on. After much deliberation and research, I found three universities that I thought would meet my criteria. Most pro-grams are traditionally bureaucratic to the point that they do not care much about what you want or need. They are interested only in what they have determined to be relevant.

Over the next two months I spent hours filling out applications, securing transcripts, acquiring letters of recommendation, reviewing course catalogs, and fulfilling various requirements. None of the degree programs were a perfect match for me but I thought that I could live with them. What I could not live with was the indifference, lack of respect, and poor customer service that characterized these institutions. In one case, I submitted my application, waited for several weeks, and then began to call to establish my status. After four weeks, still unable to get a meaningful answer, I filed this one in the trash. The second institution wrote me a letter some three weeks later and offered me admission but said it would be conditional until I passed the Graduate Record Exam, despite the fact that I met all criteria for exemption to this provision. The third institution called me at 11:30 p.m. on a Wednesday night and told me that I had been accepted but had to report to the university that Friday to take a placement test.

Discouraged but determined, I returned to the Internet and searched for universities offering masters degrees in communications and leadership. This time I found the well-known and respected Seton Hall University. Opening the home page I found the information needed to make decisions:

  • Course content

  • Delivery method

  • Limited residency

  • Online application process

I applied to the university. The next day I received a return e-mail message telling me that I would hear from the school shortly. Two days later, I received a phone call and was told that my admission application would be going before the selection committee and that I would hear back from them soon. Four days later, the administrator of the master's program in strategic communications and leadership program called and welcomed me to the program. Although I was surprised and delighted by my experience with the application process, my cynical police instinct told me that this could not last. I was wrong. This positive attitude greeted me on day one and increased over the next two years. Every issue, every concern, every need of every student in the cohort, my learning team, was addressed with respect and dignity. I never saw any one devalued or embarrassed, only nurtured and positioned for success.

For almost two years, I found time to go online, read my assignments, produce individual and group projects, and learn more about the intricacies of communications and leadership than I had ever realized. One of the most exciting things about my courses was that I constantly learned new techniques and methods to test, implement, and institutionalize. My staff told me that I was driving them crazy with all the new stuff that we were trying and using to move us forward. Moreover, they loved it, the energy and the thrill of doing things better and with more purpose. My classmates were brilliant young people who brought great intellect and energy to each group discussion. I was able to bring to this setting what they often lack: experience, wisdom, and the insight of those that have done it before. What a great mix of ideas and people. This was one of the most valuable outcomes of my learning experience.

About two years after beginning my studies, I graduated from the Hall, as it is known, with my son and senior staff in attendance. After I finished my valedictorian address, my son whispered in my ear, "Yes, Dad, old dogs can learn new tricks." I consider this to be the best thing that I have done for my community and myself since joining the police department. Since graduating, I have been so keen on using online education that I have worked to design and implement a one-year, citywide, leadership-training institute for all city employees. I remain highly motivated by this ancillary duty as director of the Leadership Institute City of Alexandria, taking great pride in the employee learners who have already graduated.

I strongly encourage all chiefs to reach out, take a chance, and grow to learn and learn to grow as they continue their journeys in leadership through distance learning, an education delivery method that fits chiefs' schedules.   ■



From The Police Chief, vol. 73, no. 8, August 2006. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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