In Part One of this two-part exclusive interview, Jacqueline Seabrooks—Chief of the Santa Monica Police Department and nationally recognized for her leadership skills and innovative approaches to municipal police work—outlined the critical ways in which the profession has evolved over the course of her career and discussed how she has met the significant challenges facing today’s leaders in law enforcement. She also revealed some of the most satisfying moments of her trailblazing career, as well as sources of frustration.
In Part Two, Chief Seabrooks discusses some of the keys to her success, issues of gender and cultural equality and the role higher education plays in law enforcement today. She also offers advice to those aspiring to a career in criminal justice.
CalSouthern: Are there any specialties in the field of criminal justice and law enforcement about which you are especially passionate, or emerging trends or technologies that you find particularly interesting?
Chief Seabrooks: I have an expertise in developing cultural competencies. I have to confess that it began as an assignment; it wasn’t something that I was always interested in. I was directed to—with a partner—develop a curriculum to help our department talk about issues of diversity, to make sense of our changing environment and to become more respectful of cultural differences.
We really immersed ourselves in the project and worked hard to produce something valuable. We even enlisted the help of Los Angeles’s acclaimed Museum of Tolerance. It was a project that extended over a number of years and ended up being extraordinarily rewarding. When we finished, we took the show on the road, so to speak, and presented it to law-enforcement entities from Massachusetts to Louisiana. It was fascinating and eye-opening to see how these organizations around the country were—or were not, in some cases—dealing effectively with these issues.
I also am very interested in how we are using the various new tools technology provides us to perform the basic functions of law enforcement—especially in how they can facilitate how we communicate. When it comes down to it, this is a people business and the skill of communication is at the heart of much of what we do. I always have been interested in how people communicate with one another, how they engage, what the prevailing rules of decorum are and how all of this evolves with technological advancements and societal shifts.
CalSouthern: It’s clear that you place great value on education. Despite your hectic schedule, you’ve earned several advanced degrees and have taught at the collegiate level. Where did this love of learning come from?
Chief Seabrooks: It came from my mother who had an inherent curiosity in how things work and relate to one another. She also taught me that the simplest question in the world is “why?” and that one should never be afraid to ask it. The day you stop asking is the day you stop learning.
CalSouthern: How significant is higher education to those interested in starting or advancing in a career in law enforcement?
Chief Seabrooks: Oh, it’s absolutely essential. It was probably essential a couple of decades ago, but we didn’t place as much of an emphasis on it then as we do today. As our economy becomes increasingly global and the world becomes smaller, education helps give us an understanding of our place in the world, where others come from and the perspectives they may bring—the interrelationship of people and things.
People coming into our profession need to understand and embrace the fact that there is an expectation that they will continue their education. I was just speaking with an officer candidate the other day who had a bachelor’s degree. I asked her how old it was and she replied, “About 10 years.” I told her that there’s an expiration date on that degree. The world is changing and degrees now have a shelf life. There is an expectation in this organization that you will continue your education, whether at a brick-and-mortar school or an online institution. In this line of work, you are dealing with people with no formal education as well as lawyers, physicians and astrophysicists. Higher education helps you bridge all those differences.
CalSouthern: Looking back, what are some of the keys to your success or critical decisions you have made that have had a significant, positive impact on your career?
Chief Seabrooks: People tend to gravitate toward things they find easy or comfortable—what they are used to doing. It’s just human nature. But I think one of the reasons I am in the position I am now is that I have been willing to step out of my comfort zone and try new things. Sometimes that has meant taking on new roles, roles that women had never tried before.
As I progressed through the ranks, stepping out of my comfort zone often meant implementing new policies or procedures. If I think there might be a better way of doing something, or if someone who reports to me has a new idea, I’ll explore it. If I determine it has merit and makes sense, I’ll give it a try, even if represents a dramatic departure from how we’ve always done things.
It doesn’t always work. Sometimes new ideas come with unintended negative consequences. In these cases, I am not prone to hang with a bad decision long; we will change course. This willingness to try new things—and to not be stubborn, to reverse course if the idea doesn’t work—has served me well.
CalSouthern: Your bio is filled with “first woman to’s.” What advice can you offer other women who find themselves in male-dominated roles or departments?
Chief Seabrooks: Women may have to be prepared to be more assertive if a familial adjustment is required for their long-term success. It has long been acceptable for a family to move or make other changes for the sake of the husband’s career; women may find that they have to assert some control in these matters, too, to achieve their professional goals.
I would also urge women—everyone, really—to find someone who you trust and who can serve as a mentor, to provide guidance and act as a sounding board for your ideas and questions. This mentor doesn’t necessarily have to be a woman.
Another thing: Don’t be afraid to take calculated risks or to make mistakes. The best CEOs and military leaders have all made mistakes. Just learn from them and keep moving forward.
Finally, don’t get too invested in what others think; you can’t let others rent negative space in your head. It may be a cliché, but it’s a cliché because it is true: you can only do the best you can do. You need to be able to find peace and satisfaction in that.
CalSouthern: Do issues of gender equality and cultural diversity remain a challenge in law enforcement today?
Chief Seabrooks: I think as long as there are differences in gender, culture and race, law enforcement will have to continue to be vigilant in ensuring that equity and fairness prevail and that individuals’ baser impulses aren’t allowed to go unchecked. There are plenty of laws and reporting mechanisms in place, but constant education about these issues is required.
CalSouthern: Do you have any advice or words of encouragement for current or potential criminal justice students interested in a career in law enforcement?
Chief Seabrooks: I would say that one shouldn’t feel as though they need to rush into this field; as someone who began her law enforcement career at 19, I think I have earned the right to say this. If you have a passion for it and are relatively sure that this is the career for you, by all means, don’t hesitate. Many law-enforcement professionals—me included—started early and have had long and rewarding careers.
However, many others have come to law enforcement with military or corporate backgrounds, in addition to myriad other life experiences. Some of our best people have come to the profession later in life and have enjoyed tremendous success—in part because of these other experiences.
Also, there are a wide variety of law-enforcement positions beyond the uniformed officer that people should explore. Just on the police side you have public safety dispatching, 911 operators, community relations professionals, crime scene investigators, crime analysts and staff devoted to budgeting, grant writing and the like. Then there’s the corrections side, including parole and probations, as well as all the functions associated with the judicial system. And these functions all exist on the municipal, state and federal levels.
The criminal justice field is huge and complex, with a multitude of opportunities beyond being a police officer patrolling in a black and white. I urge those interested to explore all these opportunities to find the positions and career paths that are best suited for their interests and talents.