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A Professor Turns Cop, and in His Criminology Classes He Can Preach What He Practices

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The metamorphosis of an out-of-shape, gun-shy, over-30 academic into a tough-beat cop began innocently enough.

When Dr. George Kirkham took over his first criminology class at Florida State in 1971, he was a brand-new Ph.D. from Berkeley. In a moment of candor, one of his best policeman students told him the “wisdom” he was passing out—that the “police personality” was innately paranoid, aggressive and hostile—was untrue and unfair. Even professors of criminology, the young cop insisted, would lose their classroom cool on the streets.

Intrigued, Kirkham decided to test the idea. He enrolled in the same four-month police academy course required of all new recruits, and during the summer of 1973 he worked the “war zone” beat of Jacksonville’s inner-city ghetto. While the experience resulted in Signal Zero, a Book-of-the-Month Club alternate, it also blew his academic theories sky-high. “What happened in those months,” he writes, “made it impossible for me ever again to view the policeman’s world from the detached perspective of a social scientist.”

The professor found himself feeling naked without his gun, telling a lie to protect his partner from a brutality charge and bashing the head of a drunk. “The central point,” he says now, “is that if someone of my educational background had so much trouble adjusting, what does this mean in terms of the 21-year-old kid who puts on a badge?”

Since 1973 Kirkham has talked to some 50 police and civic groups, written several articles, is halfway through a new textbook on law enforcement and has scripted 14 instructional films on crises that police commonly face. On campus a few colleagues grumble that his work is not scholarly enough. Kirkham, now 34, has a stinging reply. “I am bored with some university professors,” he says. “They teach the same old hoary theories…never do anything challenging or new.” Students rate Kirkham’s classes among the best in the department, but his tenure is by no means assured. “I was told I had better shape up, become a little more conventional if I expected tenure,” Kirkham says.

Kirkham’s wife, Merry Ann, 29 (it is a third marriage for both), was pregnant when he turned cop. Even though she took the police academy course with him (scoring better than he did on the shooting range), her worries were as persistent as those of any cop’s wife. Since then Kirkham has kept up his double life by patrolling summers and some weekends and evenings for the Tallahassee police. Merry Ann, who is studying for a master’s degree in forensic anthropology, helps relieve some of her fear by working nights in the Tallahassee PD crime lab. “I can tell what George is doing by monitoring the radio,” she explains with a smile.

Despite some problems with academic life, Kirkham has retained his devotion to teaching, which he sees as the best hope for just law enforcement. On the beat, he says, “you’ve got to know, you’ve got to act and you’ve got to do it now. The only solution is that policemen have to be better trained, better educated than ever before.”