Putting forensic psychology to use as a police officer

Emily O'Connell 2012
Emily O’Connell 2012 working as a Summer Cop in Kennebunkport, Maine

Emily O’Connell ’12 has an angelic smile. Don’t be fooled. She is quite familiar with devilish behavior.

As a psychology major focusing on forensic psychology, she is learning to understand the human mind—especially the criminal one. Her major has helped her for the past two summers because she has been working as a summer reserve officer for the Kennebunkport Police Department in Maine.

The job appeals to her because she gets to work outside and meet new people everyday, as well as gain valuable experience. And it certainly keeps the summer interesting.

“So many exciting things have happened in just one summer working as a police officer! One of the most exciting things has been providing security and crowd control for Taylor Swift and former President George H.W. Bush and his family,” she said. “Taylor Swift filmed her music video “Mine” in Kennebunkport and then had a world premiere to release it. The police department and other surrounding departments in the area came together to provide protection during the event.

“I got to see tons of screaming Taylor Swift fans in addition to seeing the release and Taylor Swift. The Bush compound is also in Kennebunkport, which adds an extra dimension to policing when the family goes to events in town. Our police department gets to work with the Secret Service, also, which is unusual for a local department.”

During her more typical workdays last summer, O’Connell started her shift at 8 a.m. After checking in with dispatch, she drove to the beach and switched from the car to a bike to patrol her zone and the length of the beach (three and a half to five miles). In general, her duties included traffic control, handing out parking tickets, monitoring illegal public alcohol consumption, taking complaints, helping to recover lost property, being a first response person on medical emergencies, and handling any other calls for help.

Emily O'Connell 2012
Off-Duty relaxation

“Being a police officer offers many challenges, especially when you start young, look younger, and are a woman,” she noted. “As a young female police officer, it can be difficult to deal with individuals who don’t respect police officers in general and even more so when they think they can take advantage of your age and gender. But these challenges occur among all officers. Police work can be physically challenging (walking 26 miles in one shift during the heat of the summer), intellectually challenging (understanding the laws and actions that can be taken), and emotionally challenging (dealing with the public and the many harsh realities that can be exposed during police work).”

In Kennebunkport, many of the full-time police officers started as summer reserve officers. So they have been very supportive from the start, she said. “The police department is almost like a family, we look out for each other on duty, but we also joke around with each other when the situation allows it. You do get made fun of a little bit, being the youngest, getting called ‘baby cop’ or ‘kindergarten cop.’”

Challenges and teasing aside, she has been surprised by how much she has enjoyed the work. And being a summer reserve officer has fueled her interest in forensic psychology and shown her in a real-world setting how much studying psychology enhances police work, especially during interrogations, the evaluation of eyewitness accounts, and analyzing criminal behavior.

O’Connell spent her junior year abroad studying psychology at the University of Edinburgh and taking criminology and sociology courses there. Looking ahead, she has been checking into graduate programs in forensic psychology. “Wheaton has taught me to strive for excellence and given me important problem-solving skills that I’ve put to good use as a police officer,” she said. “I’d like to continue working within the law enforcement field from a psychological perspective, whether in forensic psychology research, or as an officer within an organization such as the FBI.”