Not Every Criminal Justice Grad Wants to be a Police Officer

Contrary to popular belief, not everyone who studies criminal justice wants to be a police officer.

Take Michael Zidar, for example.

Zidar, a 24-year-old from Northeastern Ohio, graduated from Xavier with a Criminal Justice degree in 2013.

He’s now a crime analyst at the Paducah Police Department in western Kentucky, where he uses statistical analysis to make the community safer for its residents. 

“I know there is the stereotype of Criminal Justice majors all wanting to be cops, but the reality is that criminal justice is a very diverse field,” he says. “The field has a lot of different options and all of them are interesting. I figured that if I was going to study something it should be something that interested me, and crime interested me.” 

It was Kam C. Wong, PhD, specifically, who piqued Zidar’s interest. After initially struggling through Wong’s Intro to Law Enforcement class, Zidar realized something.

“Toward the end, I realized that he was not trying to make us familiar with the technical side of policing but rather the core ideas of policing itself,” he says.

Instead of learning how to conduct a traffic stop, Wong explored bigger ideas about policing in society.

“Halfway through the semester, I was struggling and Dr. Wong stayed after class and argued about some policing topic with me,” he says. “That talk made it all click for me. Since then I have been interested in the big ideas of criminal justice. That mindset was encouraged by the entire Criminal Justice faculty.”

He also credits Yolander Gail Hurst, PhD and department chair, who challenged him to think about criminology and gave him the opportunity to take a class with offenders in a level-3 state prison.

"Halfway through the semester, I was struggling and Dr. Wong stayed after class and argued about some policing topic with me. That talk made it all click for me."

It led him to graduate school, and then his job. Since the summer of 2015, Zidar has been analyzing crime in Paducah, Ky., a town of about 25,000 that sits two hours northwest of Nashville.

“I really enjoy working on projects that focus on crime prevention,” he says. “Being an analyst is very specialized and you constantly have to look outside the field to learn new techniques and practices. Making something that can be used to give venerable members of society a crime-free environment is my favorite part of this job.”

Zidar says one project he’s most proud of is a recent administrative analysis that helps free up more time for officers and their supervisors. 

"We have to know what our officers are actually doing in the community and how that relates to crime, traffic collisions, social disorder, etc.," he says. "This can take up a lot of time and energy that could be spent focusing on specific crime problems."

 In the past, Paducah officers were required to complete activity sheets to let supervisors know exactly what they had done that day. It created issues because the sheets took time to fill out and there was no easy way to verify if the activity was correct.

"To fix this issue, I borrowed from the business and IT world to create an administrative dashboard that allows supervisors to track officer activity," Zidar says. "This required learning about how to connect to different data sources and visualize these data in a way that was simple for supervisors to understand."

He was able to give supervisors a view of the work their officers were doing without requiring any additional input from the officers.

"This tool also enables them to see relevant special and temporal information about the crime, traffic or other issues they should be addressing," he says. "Tools like this free up my time, and more importantly officers' time, to focus on intervening in systemic problems that often result in crime, disorder, and lower quality of life for venerable members of our community."

And it was Xavier that showed him the way.

“Xavier is a great place to make friends and meet new and interesting people, but at the end of the day, you are there to work,” he says. “Focusing on that made it easy to keep goals in mind and be successful.”