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Exclusive Interview With Jennifer Knight, Deputy Police Chief, Columbus, Ohio

Originally published on Brainz Magazine.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in Public Administration, Ms. Knight worked full-time while attending law school at Capital University. Upon graduation, she obtained her Juris Doctor and was granted the National Women’s Law Association Award of Excellence.

Promoting quality leadership and communication in the field of law enforcement, Ms. Knight is a strong advocate for women within the profession. She is passionate about community engagement and has implemented several innovative projects designed to connect the agency with local citizens. She also participates in community events such as Shop With a Cop, Books and Badges, fundraising running events, and community Thanksgiving food donations.

Ms. Knight is passionate and active in human trafficking prevention and supports nonprofits that assist trafficking victims. Her efforts include developing educational materials, writing legislation, and scaling a 38-story building to raise money for GraceHaven, a local non-profit providing shelter, and support services for human trafficking survivors.

In her free time, Ms. Knight trains for the more than thirty road races, from 5Ks to marathons, that she runs annually. She spends weekends with her husband and family and is an avid Ohio State football fan.

What inspired you to become a police officer?

That's a very interesting story. I had never previously considered law enforcement as a career. I didn't have an opportunity to pursue a college degree after graduation, and instead entered the workforce with very few marketable skills or career goals. While I entered the workforce with a strong work ethic, I had no clear direction and I began a search for purpose and opportunities that would align with my strengths. I gravitated towards positions of service, where I had contact with the public, and I avoided those positions that would place me in a cubicle for 30 years.

In my 20s I met my husband, Jeff, who was serving in the Army as a Military Police Sergeant. That was my first exposure to any law enforcement profession, but I still never imagined myself assuming that role. I had no contact with traditional law enforcement and had no friends or family, other than my husband, that were police officers. In 1995 our family decided to leave military service, and the search for a new career and life began. My husband looked for a career in his field and when he tested for an entry-level law enforcement position in Columbus, I decided to take the test, on a whim. I began this amazing journey by taking an entry-level test alongside my husband, without a clear idea of what to expect, or where this chance might lead.

As luck might have it, and with no experience, I scored slightly higher than Jeff, and I received an Academy appointment date six months later. I entered the police Academy in November 1996, six months before my husband also received an appointment. I still had little understanding of what this position might entail, or even if I would have the requisite skills to be a success. The day before I started the police academy I had serious doubts about this particular career choice. "Did I really want to do this? Will I like the work? Do I have the ability to be successful at this job?"

I knew very soon that I had found my calling, and I had stumbled into a profession that I was truly designed for. I welcomed each new challenge, relished the variety and excitement, and was grateful for every opportunity to serve. Law enforcement was, and is, a job in communications. I thrived in an environment where I could engage the public, interact with diverse groups, solve difficult problems, and face new challenges every day. I had somehow found the career that would change my life and provide a solid future for my family. I recognize how blessed I am to have loved my job every single day for 26 years.

Why did you decide to pursue a law degree?

I decided to pursue a college degree in my 40s as I worked as an officer in patrol on a second shift assignment. As an adult student in my 40s, with a full-time job and a family, I wanted to take advantage of a benefit that covered 100% tuition for sworn employees pursuing an education. One of the motivators was my strong belief in the benefits of continuing education.

I believe law enforcement, at every rank, must challenge themselves through continued education and training. Additionally, my children were at an age where I was compelled to lead by example. If I was to truly be an advocate of continued education, I would need to demonstrate this value from a platform of knowing what that meant.

I completed my undergraduate work in the evenings and graduated from Capital University with a Bachelor's in Public Administration, a degree that would complement my operational experience as an officer. After graduation, I searched for other opportunities to advance my education. I had always been fascinated with the law, but had not previously considered attending Law school; I was unsure my job and family would accommodate the commitment I envisioned law school would require. With the support of my husband, I decided to take a leap of faith and I was accepted into Capital Law School’s evening program.

I spent the next four years attending law school year-round, at night, while working full-time and raising a family. I graduated from law school and passed the bar in 2016. It remains one of the most difficult and memorable things I have accomplished. To this day I miss the experience of being in class, the challenge of the work, and the continued opportunity to expand my base of knowledge. Law school was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

How does your law degree help you in your role as deputy police chief or even just in law enforcement in general?

The study of the law provides you with a different perspective of the system of justice. You would think that a career in law enforcement and a law degree are very closely aligned, but they are often different sides of the same coin. Law enforcement officers are on the front lines of the justice system, but they are operating in a more unpredictable and potentially dangerous environment as they respond to an evolving crisis. Additionally, a police officer may have little or no contact with someone as they progress through a complicated system of justice. Those occupying other roles in the justice system, like attorneys, judges, and advocates, often have less understanding of the challenges that officers face on the front lines of crisis and crime control. I have the unique benefit of having insight into what happens to individuals once we take off the handcuffs. I recognize the importance of each role in the criminal justice process that functions to support the goal of justice in the larger system. I also have gained new insight into how challenging it is for individuals that are arrested, and the struggles many face once they become engaged in the criminal justice system.

I think a law degree teaches you to be cognizant of the implications of your actions as a law enforcement officer. It provides an additional depth of understanding of the many ways the frontline of law enforcement intertwines with the larger legal system, and why it's so important that we continue to work with our partners in the legal profession to pursue justice. Lastly, I believe it provides me with a more nuanced understanding of police policy, so I can balance the need for justice, the preservation of rights, and the importance of safety for officers operating on the front lines. The law gives you reverence for the rights of others and respect for those that stand in the gap during a crisis.

What is it like having family in line work in law enforcement?

When I entered the law enforcement profession, I was the first person in my family to obtain a position on a police department. My husband followed after about six months. Interestingly enough, we worked together, and sometimes in the same car, for several years before we pursued different positions within the agency. He was the best partner I had as a patrol officer because we anticipated the other’s reactions so effectively. While many of our peers marveled at how anyone could work with their spouse, we were effective because we both respected the other person’s abilities. Additionally, the ability to share such a significant part of our life brought us closer. While many law enforcement professionals attempt to shield their families from the dangerous and sometimes tragic incidents in policing, we were able to share these experiences daily.

I am proud to say my sister, brother-in-law and several others are now part of my law enforcement family. There is never a shortage of stories or conversations related to policing.

Law enforcement is one of those professions where families become part of the culture and children often follow in their parent's footsteps. Law enforcement professionals often love the job so much that they encourage their children to pursue a similar path. It becomes a profession that binds the entire family and it is exciting to be able to share that passion with your family.

 

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