If you’re like me, your fascination with criminal justice began with a misspent youth watching every gangster movie on the video store shelf.
Maybe you pictured yourself disrupting drug deals for the Tony Montana’s of the world. Perhaps play time for you meant pretending to penetrate the New York mafia like FBI special agent Joe Pistone in Donnie Brasco. Or maybe you were the The Untouchables’ Eliot Ness, hunting Al Capone with a crack team of rogue cops.
Your interest in organized crime is what inspires you to look into earning a criminal justice degree – and maybe even a specialization in homeland security. And, you couldn’t have picked a better time to get involved.
Law enforcement agencies are seeing a more sophisticated and pervasive brand of organized crime every day, and earning a degree is one way to make sure you’re on the frontlines of the fight.
Organized crime: an evolving threat
Speaking to the Citizens Crime Commission of New York in 2011, FBI director Robert Mueller spoke candidly about the fact that organized crime continues to flourish in America.
Mueller explained that organized crime has shifted out of the smoky backrooms and seedy storefronts of New York and New Jersey and gone international. He specifically mentions groups from Asia, Eastern Europe, West Africa and the Middle East as the primary players in various forms of smuggling, trafficking, financial fraud and price-fixing.
Mueller compares large crime syndicates to Fortune 500 companies – complete with billion-dollar bankrolls and global influence.
Organized crime: the reality
While this FBI statistic may be surprising, it’s just one of several trends pointing toward a crime problem that is growing in complexity and worldwide reach.
“We’ll never fully get a grasp on organized crime … at both the federal and state level, we’re not very well staffed to combat it,” says Marie Fulop, veteran law enforcement officer and program coordinator for the School of Justice Studies in Fort Myers (Fla.).
According to the U.S. National Security Strategy on fighting transnational crime:
- $1 trillion: Spent every year on bribing public officials (World Bank)
- 46 percent: Top drug trafficking organizations in 2010 linked to terrorist organizations (U.S. Justice Department)
- $188 million: The value of U.S. Customs seizures related to intellectual property in 2010 (U.S. State Department)
- $6.6 billion: Estimated annual profit gained from smuggling people from Latin America to the U.S. (United Nations Office on Drugs & Crime)
One of the big challenges in managing, tracking and infiltrating organized crime rings is the transient nature of law enforcement personnel, Fulop says.
She explains that it can take four or five years for an officer or agent to build a trustworthy network of contacts and become an expert in organized crime. Then, as soon as experienced people are in the right places, reassignment or opportunity for promotion causes them to switch departments. And so the cycle continues.
“[Law enforcement] is outweighed huge by the bad guys,” Fulop says. “We always need more staff.”
That’s where you come in
Earning a criminal justice degree is a great place to start if you want to join the fight against organized crime, Fulop says.
Once you’re in the field, you’ve got to learn a lot of information about the threats that exist and the places they originate and it’s easy to get overwhelmed. A degree can help you learn how to absorb and process all that information.
Smart people that have demonstrated the intelligence and initiative to earn a college degree is exactly what’s needed in the lopsided fight against organized crime, Fulop says. “We’ll never outnumber [the criminals], so we have to outsmart them.”
It’s true that the FBI has led the charge against organized crime in America since the days of Al Capone. But today, federal law enforcement agencies including DEA, ATF, Secret Service, Postal Inspection and Immigration & Customs Enforcement all assist in the fight – and all require new applicants to hold college degrees.
But if you’re thinking that the only way you can help fight organized crime is to meet the rigorous federal requirements, you’re mistaken. Federal agencies routinely participate in joint task forces with state and local law enforcement to pool resources and share responsibilities.
But to get placed on one of those task forces, you need to three or four years experience in your state or local department and you need to distinguish yourself from the pool of applicants, Fulop says. Earning a criminal justice degree is a great way to do that.
A degree is your first step toward that career you’ve been dreaming about since the first time you looked in the mirror and said in your best Dirty Harry voice: “You’ve got to ask yourself a question: Do I feel lucky? Well do ya … punk?”