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Mathematics Applied: Modern Applications of Math in Law Enforcement

Modern Applications of Math in Law Enforcement

Tim McMillan is a self-proclaimed geek. “Just ask my wife. She’ll tell you,” he says. For the past three years, Tim has been working hard to pursue his education at SNHU while balancing his work and home life, which includes two toddler-aged boys. In June, he completed his Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics — a degree that’s helping him succeed in a surprising career: law enforcement.

You’re an almost 13-year veteran of the police force, now serving as police lieutenant. What drove you to become a police officer?

When I was almost 21 years old, friends of mine were killed during a home invasion. The suspect, who they did catch and prosecute and who is still in prison, took a DVD player and that’s it. I had never experienced tragedy, and — being so young — it really, really bothered me. Very shortly after that, I enrolled in the police academy and have been working as an officer ever since.

At what point in your career did you decide to go back to school to earn your degree?

It was almost exactly three years ago. I was starting to move up the career ladder — getting a little older and more mature — and I knew the opportunities a degree could open up for me as I progressed throughout my career.

Earning my bachelor’s also gave me a sense of freedom. The minimum requirement for a lot of jobs is a bachelor’s degree. In law enforcement, nothing is guaranteed in this job. You hope you don’t get hurt, and you can keep doing it until you retire. But you never know what will happen, and you don’t ever want to get locked in to a single path.

The other deciding moment was when my 3-year-old son was born. It was one of those things where you start realizing you want to be a role model for your kids. You don’t want to be preaching from the pulpit when you’re telling him someday that he needs to go to college.

What skills do today’s police officers need now that they didn’t need, say, 20 years ago?

Today’s police officer has to be smarter — and I don’t mean IQ test. They have to be better problem solvers. You have to be able to make moral and ethical decisions. You need officers with the ability to think outside the box and creatively problem solve.

When I went back to school, that’s what I feel I got out of it. We have four or five officers at SNHU who are working on their degrees, ranging from the ages of 25 to 54. And I see it in these officers, too. They’re getting their education, expanding their worldview and becoming broader-minded officers. They’re not judgmental. They approach situations differently and smarter. That is always a very proud moment for me.

How does your department use data inside the organization and to prevent crime and solve cases?

I’m a certified police academy adjunct instructor — I wear a lot of hats — and a few months ago I got a national certification called “Fair and Impartial Policing.” It’s a new approach to law enforcement. You’re training officers to be aware of biases in the field.

In the class, we cover how to identify officers who are operating under bias, even if they don’t realize it. We go through reports and determine if we’re writing more tickets to a certain gender or race and if we’re enforcing laws differently. Instead of manually sifting through police reports, I said, “Why would we do that?” We’re in the computer age, where we can extract data in seconds.

That’s the trend right now: developing programs using data extraction to examine police reports and how officers are behaving, so you have the ability to go to an officer and stop biased behavior before it happens. It allows us to be proactive instead of reactive.

Nationwide, are more police agencies using data in day-to-day operations?

Definitely. One of the most successful data-driven solutions I’ve seen in other agencies is the employment of data analysts who examine crime waves and deploy their assets to certain geographical locations based on what the crime stats are telling them. You’re almost trying to predict the future by using mathematics and analyzing past events. This has been really successful for a lot of agencies, and you’re going to see more of it. There’s just so much data that’s available to us these days.

I haven’t been in policing that long — just a little over a decade — but back when I started we had VHS video recorders that were mounted in the trunk of our cars. Now we have digital recorders inside our cars, and officers have these little body cameras that aren’t even bigger than a deck of playing cards. It’s crazy how fast technology is advancing.

So, what made you choose online at SNHU?

As I said, I’m a geek, so I research everything. I called a lot of schools, and everyone I talked with treated me like I was going to a car dealership to buy a car. They’d say, “Yeah, yeah. Go look at everything, and get back to us if you find something you’re interested in.” I kept thinking, you know, this is an investment. And I don’t feel like anybody wants me.

When I called SNHU, it was the exact opposite. I felt like they really wanted me, and I was excited. The reputation also stood out to me — the fact that SNHU is affordable, a nonprofit and started out as a brick and mortar university. It had respectability behind it.

You started off as a criminal justice major. Why the switch to a BA in Mathematics?

I was going to be a criminal justice major initially, but thank God for my wife. She told me, “Why don’t you get a degree in something you want?” Because, honestly, I didn’t want a degree in criminal justice. I’d been doing the job for almost 10 years, and I didn’t think there was anything else academically I could learn in that setting. I wanted to learn something new.

But when I took the first math class that was required by my program, I felt like I was really being challenged — and that really excited me. Like I said, I’m a huge nerd. I began to see how mathematics was applicable to my job. Data analysis, applied statistics and applied mathematics are being used throughout the country and progressively in law enforcement agencies, and I wanted to be on the forefront.

How have the skills you’ve learned in your program translated to your career? How is math used in law enforcement?

Just two days ago we had a rash of people stealing cars from outside of two particular gas stations — people leave their car running with the keys in it and someone jumps in and takes it. We set up an operation where we used a bait car. It’s a car that’s rigged so that someone can get in it and they can drive away, but we can remotely shut it down and lock the doors, locking them inside.

I was able to do the time analysis beforehand using applied mathematics — the same procedure that’s in any other statistical research — to determine what times were the best times to do this operation. We didn’t have to go out there randomly last night. We were able to have a plan as to what time statistically tipped the scales in our favor.

Through my coursework, I saw a lot of the progressive things that could be done with math in law enforcement — two different fields that definitely don’t seem like they go together.

So what’s next for you?

I finished my bachelor’s in mathematics in June, and when my last classes ended — I gotta tell you — I was a little depressed for a few days! Juggling small kids, work and school have been my life for three years, so I was like, “Well what am I going to do now?” So I decided to enroll in the MS in Data Analytics program, and I start at the end of September.

Pamme Boutselis is a writer and content director in higher education. Follow her on Twitter @pammeb or connect on LinkedIn.

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