Students shadow professor for a day

A daylong surveillance operation began early Tuesday in Cook Hall, where the second floor picture windows offered a great view of the criminal justice building. Students on first watch waited impatiently for a sighting of Professor Stephen Owen, whom they were charged with shadowing.

"We know he had a meeting at 8:30 in that building, so we'll know if he leaves," said senior Kaitlyn Austin, the class "captain," or student in charge of the day's operations.

Austin and 38 fellow students in Professor Tod Burke's criminal investigative theory class have spent the semester studying surveillance, from its legality and ethics to the reasons it is performed, which, according to students, range from simple information gathering to full-on crime prevention.

"The issues aren't as clear cut as it seems on TV," Burke said. "Surveillance is not always exciting, but if you're really following a criminal, what should you search for? Can you find out as much information as you can?"

Owen volunteered to be the target of a surveillance practicum so Burke's students could turn theory into practice. It's one of several exercises Burke gives his classes each semester to bring students' skills out of the classroom and into the field.

In the days leading up to the exercise, Austin and her classmates did plenty of homework on Owen. They found out what car he drove, where he liked to park and what his typical schedule is.

Kris Peterson, a senior criminal justice major and Austin's deputy in the operation, helped procure walkie-talkies, cameras and a maintenance department cart to help them get around campus quickly.

Peterson arrived on campus as early as 7 a.m. to make sure somebody would have eyes on Owen as he arrived. When the professor showed up with a heavy winter coat and large satchel, Peterson noted one of the crew's first potential problems:  The professor could have extra clothes with him, meaning his attire and appearance could change at any point. As colleague Austin put it, "The hardest thing about this is playing these things by ear."

Burke, who acted as "police chief" for the exercise, stressed both the importance of preparation and the ability to think on one's feet in surveillance. "Dr. Owen knows that surveillance is going to take place. Knowing him, if it's a nice day, he'll pick up and go places. It's the students' job, from the time he gets on campus to the time he leaves campus, to know every place he goes, every person he talks to and every purchase he makes."

The assignment to tail Owen was designed to be fun and engaging, but it also emulated real issues in professional surveillance. During a real surveillance operation, losing sight of a suspect for even a few minutes could be enough time for an operation to fail. On the flip side, a law enforcement official cannot afford to be identified as such, or get "burned."

It was Burke's hope that maintaining continual surveillance of Owen while staying incognito would be harder than the students expected. "You set the bar high, they'll come to it," he said. "But it's better to make mistakes here in the academic setting instead of on the streets, where it could cost you your life."

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Apr 9, 2013
Dan Waidelich
(540) 831-7749