The University of Iowa

Studying Crime and Justice in Britain (but first in Iowa)

May 22nd, 2014

By Amanda Bartlett

Amanda is a freshman from Pleasant Hill, Iowa, majoring in journalism and mass communication at the University of Iowa. She is currently studying abroad on the summer program Crime and Justice in Britain.

sitting in the district courtroom
Amanda sits on the judge's seat in the district court

Like most 18 and 19-year-olds, I am wrapping my brain around the fact that I have just completed my freshman year of college. Clichéd thoughts like “it seems like only yesterday I was in high school!” and “wow, I have changed so much!” have admittedly consumed my mind. Unlike most of my peers, however, I will not be returning home for the summer after that grueling time of stress-induced junk food binges and sleep deprivation known as finals week.

Not yet, at least.

Unlike most students completing their first year of college, I am attempting to comprehend that in just a few days, I will be studying abroad in the United Kingdom on a program called Crime and Justice in Britain.

photos from crime in britian class
Clockwise from top: A crime lab specialist explains to the class various tools used in a crime scene; fingerprinting tools and chemicals; other tools that are typically used in any crime scene investigation; a demonstration of how fingerprinting tools can identify prints on a soda can; the Johnson County Courthouse.

Why did I choose this program? I remember sitting in my Intro to Sociology lecture during one of the first weeks of class when professor Karen Heimer came to the front of the room. She began talking about this short-term study abroad – that the first week of class would take place on campus, the other two in London and Edinburgh. To be honest, I was only half-listening. My interest was piqued, however, when she mentioned a Jack the Ripper tour. Ever since I first picked up the novel American Psycho a couple of years ago, I’ve had a sort of infatuation with famous serial killers.

After listening attentively, I became intrigued at the thought of gaining insight into America’s criminal justice system by studying its British roots – criminology is something that has always captivated me. As a journalism major, I find it to be an important topic, especially in terms of investigative reporting. By the end of her lecture, I was sold.

I raced back to my dorm to fill out my online application. A few weeks later, I was thrilled to discover that I had been accepted.

As I write, I am almost finished with the on-campus portion of the course, and I couldn’t be happier with my decision. The past few days were filled with engaging classroom content in which we drew comparisons between American and British justice systems. The coolest part, though, was visiting the Johnson County Courthouse as well as Iowa City’s police station and crime lab.

In the courthouse, I was exposed to district and juvenile court hearings, from domestic abuse cases to probation violations, and played a role as a real witness to the hearings. In district court proceedings, I noticed a much more formal atmosphere and admired the judge’s clarity and genuine concern for each defendant’s case. The juvenile court was a bit less traditional, and we observed a social worker address a case to assign children from a troubled home to a local foster family. I felt compassion toward the story, and it was interesting to observe a different philosophy in which they wanted to intervene and see what could be done to help before the case was presented in a civil court.

officer mebus talks to the class
Officer Mebus speaks to the class

Today at the police station, I had the pleasure of speaking to Officer Mebus, who took us down to the crime lab and showed us various crime scene tools from fingerprint powder to dental stone. He also enlightened our group to the requirements of applying for the police department.

What does it take?

Not only must officers be able to write and do basic math, but Mebus explained that “a linear thinking ability with peripheral vision into the abstract” is also desired. You need to be healthy and fit, and good speaking skills are also necessary.

Officers must go through a psychological exam to gauge their integrity, character, and personality to determine how they will behave in the field.

“I’ve seen the best of humanity and the worst of humanity,” Mebus said, who claims that his role as an enforcer certainly takes a toll on his mental and physical health, as well as his family life. However, he believes that at the end of the day, all that matters is that justice is brought to those who deserve it.

A prime example of this was an experience Mebus had when approached by a 5-year old girl on a playground.

“She came up to me and asked, ‘You’re a police officer, right?’”

“Looking down at my uniform, I said, ‘Well, yes.’”

“She responded, ‘My mom says you’re here to protect and serve, right?’”

“Again, I responded yes.”

“She looked me dead in the eye. ‘Officer, will you tie my shoe?’”