It’s a tough time to work in law enforcement and criminal justice. Jon Moeller, a Dordt University criminal justice instructor and an FBI agent, is aware of that.
“Perception of law enforcement is poor, and there are fewer people who want to go into criminal justice and law enforcement as career paths,” says Moeller.
But, in some ways, that’s what motivates Moeller to teach.
“It’s about pouring into the next generation so that they’re prepared for what they’re going to experience in the field,” he says.
One way Moeller does this is by ensuring that students get out of the classroom.
“They get to experience what it’s like to work in law enforcement or corrections from the folks who are doing it every day. They see the complexities that have to be dealt with on a daily basis.”
This year, Moeller’s students have put their learning to use in activities ranging from participating in a firearms training simulation to walking through a fully functional penitentiary.
“These visits are just a drop in the bucket in terms of what jobs and opportunities are out there,” he says. “But I hope these field experiences help generate questions, give experience, and pique their interest in law enforcement or in criminal justice work.”
Firearms Training Simulator
Moeller steers a Dordt van full of students down a long gravel road past the Sioux City airport. A tall barbed wire fence parallels the road and ends at a gateway with a sign that reads, “Warning: Controlled Area.”
After he parks the van, 10 students hop out. There are two double-wide trailers and several bullet-riddled cars and trucks nearby. Aside from one glowing streetlight, the place is dark.
“Let’s go,” says Moeller, pointing to a trailer. It looks empty, but when he opens the door, light streams out onto the pavement.
Sergeant Chris Jansen of Woodbury County Sheriff’s Office rises from a conference table to greet the students and Moeller. He’s in charge of the firearm training simulator that brought the students and Moeller to Sioux City on a Thursday night. The simulator takes up half the double-wide trailer, with three screens that stretch from floor to ceiling. Every week, police officers use the simulator to practice their decision-making skills by running through realistic scenarios.
Tonight, the students will each try it out.
Earlier in the week Moeller had explained that scenarios could be simple or complex, but always unique.
“You will learn the complexities of split-second legal and life decisions in a stressful environment,” he wrote in an email. “These scenarios are not geared to be impossible but are some of the most realistic environments to learn in—and remain safe.”
Eight students are criminal justice majors; one is a psychology major, while another is studying actuarial science. Some are here for class credit as part of Criminal Justice 101, while others are here for the experience. They all seem a little nervous as they take a seat around the conference table.
“The simulator has scenarios, but it also has distractions,” says Sergeant Jansen. “Depending on how you react, I can prompt the simulator to respond with an action. Situations can either escalate or deescalate, and you have to respond.”
Sergeant Jansen explains how the training handgun works. It’s not a real gun—it’s powered by carbon dioxide and has a laser pointer. Each student will have to wear the holster and make immediate decisions on whether to reach for the gun, based on how the scenario plays out.
But, before any student can step in front of the simulator, Moeller asks the students to pull out their notebooks and review some key definitions—reasonable force, duty to retreat, castle doctrine, 21-foot rule. He does this to remind the students what appropriate actions could be taken within the bounds of the law.
The students aren’t here to recite definitions, though. Moeller and Jansen escort Tyler De Hoogh, a sophomore psychology major, into the simulation room for the first scenario. Jansen sits down behind a computer, and Moeller leans against the back wall. Gun in holster, De Hoogh waits.
On the screen appears a man standing on a tennis court. In a split second, the man brandishes a long knife and starts running toward De Hoogh at full speed. De Hoogh tries to pull the gun from the holster, but the screen is already black.
“He got you—that’s why the screen went black,” says Sergeant Jansen. De Hoogh looks up, surprised.
They run the simulation again—same scenario, but this time with a different result, as De Hoogh retrieves the gun in short order.
“How long was he standing there before he started running at you?” asks Jansen.
“A second and a half?”
A report appears on the screen—how many shots fired, when the subject appears, when the subject first started running, initial use of force.
“So he was standing there for almost two seconds—1.932 seconds,” says the sergeant.
“How far did he make it?” asks Moeller. “Did he make it a foot?”
“Two feet,” says Jansen. “Now, look at where you’re standing. The shot you took—is he going to fall right there?”
De Hoogh shakes his head.
“No, he’s going to keep running at you,” says Jansen. “If someone has a knife and is running at you, you need to create distance—back up. You’re allowed to move around. Now, grab a chair.”
Once every student has run through this simulation, Sergeant Jansen calls for the group’s attention.
“Did anyone tell him to drop the knife—give a verbal command? No. Next time, give verbal cues,” he says. The students nod.
The next simulation opens on a parking lot. A man is fumbling with the door handle of a small car.
“Sir, what are you doing?” says Nathan Sawtelle, a senior criminal justice major. “Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to stop doing that.”
The man turns around, angrily waving a long piece of metal in the air.
“What do you want? I dare you to come closer.”
“Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to drop your weapon,” says Sawtelle. He reaches for the holster, and the man puts his hands in the air. The piece of metal falls to the ground.
“Hey, hey, hey, alright,” says the man. “Take it easy.”
“Put your hands above your head—can you get down on your knees for me? Thank you.”
“I want you to write down what you saw and what you heard,” instructs Moeller after the screen fades to black. He tells this to every student who goes through the scenario. And even though the storyline is the same—a man standing beside a car with a long piece of metal—every student reacts differently. Some coax the man to drop his weapon, while others fire the gun. Each of them jots down notes.
Once the room is again full of students, the sergeant and Moeller pepper the students with questions.
“What was he doing?” asks Moeller.
“It looks like he was trying to break into a car.”
“What kind of car?”
Students throw out various answers: a white mini-van, a white cross-over.
“Was there anyone else in the screen?” asks Jansen.
“I couldn’t see, but that’s because I tunnel-visioned on the one person,” says Nate Arvizu, a freshman criminal justice major.
“What color was the handle on the screwdriver?”
“Look at your paragraph,” says Moeller. “How many of you described the car? If you fired your weapon, did you write down how many times you fired your weapon? Did anyone put down what he was wearing? Did anyone ask him if it was his car?”
As a group, they run through the scenario again. The students take note: The car was a white Volvo, the man was wearing gloves, there were no bystanders, the screwdriver’s handle was red.
“Officers need to pay attention and be able to articulate what they see,” says Jansen. “This is especially important in report writing, as you need to write out exactly what happened. You have to make the people reading it feel like they’re there with you—be detailed.”
They run through a few more scenarios—a possible break-in, a burglary, a kidnapping, a bombing. Each time, the sergeant and Moeller walk the students through what happened, pushing them to deescalate the situation whenever possible and to pay close attention to what’s happening.
Days later, after the students have had time to process, they repeatedly mention how much they appreciated being able to participate in the simulation.
“For how nervous I was going into the simulation, I was very glad that I could experience a small part of the training that officers go through and what kind of qualities or personality traits they must have in order to protect and serve our community well,” says Sydney Stiemsma, a junior psychology major.
“The simulation helped me to see the rules and laws we are learning in class come to life,” says Levi Jungling, a junior psychology major. “It definitely got my stress levels up and gave me a sense of how quickly things can go south in the world of law enforcement and how little time police have to react.”
“Not even some police officers in the academy have had the opportunity to do a training like this. Having a professor who has connections to give us this opportunity was a blessing,” says Abby Smith, a senior criminal justice major. “I am incredibly thankful to the sergeant who took time out of his evening to work with us.”
Ninety percent of the cases that go through the court system do not result in prison sentences, says Moeller. What are the best ways to handle those that do require prison time? What are the challenges that face the American correctional system, and how should these be approached from a biblical perspective?
On Tuesdays and Thursdays during the spring semester, Moeller teaches a corrections course, where he helps students to see that there’s much more to corrections than law and order.
“What types of sentences work or don’t? What happens when the correctional system takes on the cost of mental illness or the health care of those serving life sentences? What does isolation do to a human being?” says Moeller. “We talk about a lot of different things.”
Talking is different than experiencing, which is why Moeller has arranged for his corrections class to take a tour of the South Dakota State Penitentiary on a chilly Thursday afternoon in January.
South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls is said to hold South Dakota’s most deadly and dangerous criminals. From a work release center to a maximum-security area, the penitentiary houses about 1,300 inmates. Moeller and his seven students get to tour it all, thanks to Lieutenant Hunter Summers of the South Dakota Department of Corrections.
The students and Moeller meet Summers and his team in their office. All around is evidence that the students aren’t at Dordt anymore. A bulletin board is decorated with confiscated weapons made from pens, string, rope, locks, and scissors. A colorful poster highlights gang tattoos with the reminder that “knowledge is key.” A whiteboard has prisoner mugshots charted out based on their possible gang affiliations.
It’s not long before the students and Moeller are walking past tall metal fences layered in barbed wire on their way to the Jameson Annex and the maximum-security prison.
“It’s the safest unit in the prison because everyone is locked down 23 hours a day,” says Summers.
To enter the building, the students must hand over their driver’s licenses and don visitor badges. Once they’re inside, they watch as inmates in orange jumpsuits and shackles shuffle by, chaperoned by officers jangling keys and handcuffs.
Summers explains that this building is home to disciplinary segregation, the mental health ward, the dentist, the infirmary, and death row.
“Death row inmates can’t have physical contact with anyone,” he says. “When they come out, this place gets locked down. Right now, we have one person on death row.”
They head down a quiet hallway past barred windows. Summers points out the different rooms—there’s the chaplain’s office, a worship center, a small arts and crafts room. Two criminal justice majors, Trey Schiebout, a junior, and Nate Monillas, a sophomore, peer into the gym, trying to imagine working out on the ancient metal contraption that is the one weight-lifting machine.
Soon the group is outside the administration and orientation area—it’s a large room with rows of bunkbeds and dozens of prisoners. This is temporary housing for men until they get assigned and classified to a unit, a process that can take up to four weeks.
Arvizu points to an inmate who’s holding up piece of paper that says, “Don’t feed the animals.” Summers reprimands the inmate for that, ordering him to slide the paper under the door.
As they walk away, Arvizu asks, “Will that inmate get in more trouble?”
One of Summers’ colleagues laughs. The inmate won’t be punished, but he’ll have to learn to not be so bold with the prison officers.
The group leaves the Jameson Annex and heads to The Hill, the oldest building on the property. Once they’re inside, Summer points out the five tiers with 30 cells each. Two, maybe three inmates are in each cell. There’s only one chow room—a cafeteria—so each tier gets released one at a time.
Officers escort the inmates out for count, which happens four to five times a day. Olivia Moret, a senior business major, steps out of the way so a smiling inmate can walk past her.
Summers walks the group outside to the rec area, which is where inmates who aren’t in school or working spend their time. About 200 inmates work on carpentry, book binding, braille, and more, making somewhere between 25 cents an hour or $135 a month, depending on the position. In one shop Hope Haven, a life skills ministry program, has inmates help with wheelchair assembly.
An inmate and a dog stop by the group. The dog, named Chase, is a paroled pup trained by an inmate and available for adoption through the Sioux Falls Humane Society. He jumps up on Sawtelle, who scratches the dog behind its ears.
Sawtelle isn’t interested in working in corrections, but he appreciated the opportunity to walk through the penitentiary.
“The one thing that has been repeated to me over and over in my courses at Dordt is that class only helps so much,” says Sawtelle.
And that’s exactly why Moeller decided to take the students to visit the penitentiary.
“Trips like these help students to learn and grow rather than just reading out of a book or watching a video,” says Moeller. “They get to go out into the field and see what it’s like—to see it for themselves and to talk with people like Summers. Again, it’s about pouring into the next generation—showing them what working in corrections or law enforcement is like and what they’ll experience in the field.”