Imagine this for a moment: you’re part of a narcotics task force, and your team has targeted a methamphetamine lab—you have probable cause, and the time has come to act and confront the suspect. A mixture of adrenaline and fear is coursing through your veins. You’ve studied the layout of the residence, everyone has memorized their role, and which direction to go when the time comes to enter. Your team assembles in an orderly stack, and deep breaths abound. You’ve trained for this, but with every raid comes a risk, and what comes next is always unforeseeable.
For Tina Freestone, Associate Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences at University of Arkansas Grantham, this type of scenario was common during her time on the Tri-County Drug Task Force in the rural high-traffic area of Hillsboro, Missouri. She spent a decade in law enforcement, serving nearly eight years as a uniformed officer before accepting the special assignment in narcotics, where she was the only female on the task force.
“You know, it was hard being a female in the department,” Freestone says. “Back then (in the late 90’s and early 2000’s), you were few and far between, and you had an educated female in a very male dominated profession. So that was challenging.”
By the time she was 21, she had earned her bachelor’s in criminology from University of California Irvine, as well as her master’s in criminal justice from State University of New York at Albany. Her career goal had always been to join the FBI, but the age requirement to apply was 25, so she put that dream on the back burner. She sustained an injury later in her career, which ended her chances to join the bureau altogether.
Though she never saw herself becoming a narcotics detective, Freestone says she has no regrets. She completed her clandestine laboratory training with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in Maryland, which was an intensive week-long program where she learned what smells to look for, how to recognize the type of chemical the smell is indicative of, and even how to make methamphetamine.
“Meth labs were always really scary because of all the chemicals,” Freestone says. “As soon as you knew you had a meth lab, and had suspects, you immediately secured them. You secure the scene, and you do what you can with the chemicals.”
She still recalls one raid that ended in an explosion after another member of the task force opened a jar that caught fire once exposed to the air. After a last-ditch effort to extinguish the fire with buckets of water from a makeshift pool in the front yard, the task force fled in a hurry up the hill. Thankfully, everyone escaped safely.
There are a few things she considers crucial in order for a mission to be as successful as possible—maintaining a balance between courage and fear and having trust in one another. Freestone says before every mission, everyone would say to each other, “we’re going home at the end of this.”
Reflecting on her time as a narcotics detective, she’s most proud of her successful prosecutions where she credits accurate and detailed report writing is essential. She considers it to be one of the most important aspects of the job, because something you never want to call into question is your credibility. “I knew that when I wrote a report, or I walked into the courtroom, that I had an ironclad case.”
In fact, learning how to write and articulate yourself properly are foremost skills she stresses to her students and helps them to strengthen, as she says it makes all the difference in whether or not a case gets prosecuted, or a victim gets justice.
Tina Freestone began teaching at UA Grantham in July 2008 and she has been utilizing actual cases and calls with dispositions to prepare students in her criminal justice courses for real-life scenarios and their potential outcomes, ever since.
“Education is huge in this field. I think more education leads to being able to look at different perspectives, different points of view, and how to agree to disagree respectfully.”
Her real-world experience has enabled her and others in the department to continually enhance the curriculum and provide invaluable insight to students who are considering a career in criminal justice.
“Our instructors are either still active in law enforcement or have retired but were at a commander level,” she says. “Some may have been captains, majors, deputy chiefs, or retired chiefs. They always have their hands in the curriculum, [and are] always providing up-to-date information.”
Having to demystify the ways various jobs in criminal justice are portrayed on television is something she encounters regularly. “Everybody wants to be a CSI investigator, and that’s something we’ve probably been dealing with for the past 10+ years,” Freestone says.
While this is a very real possibility, she says students tend to underestimate what it really takes to reach that goal. “More often, you have to serve your time in patrol, then you can test for specialized units, and then you receive specialized training.” For students seeking upward mobility in law enforcement, or the opportunity to join a specialized unit someday, she says a degree is vital.
At UA Grantham, students seeking a career in criminal justice can earn a general criminal justice degree. In this program, students can expect to learn about criminology, policing and place administration, criminal investigations, criminal law and criminal procedure, as well as what causes crime. They can also choose a concentration in either Computer Forensic Investigation or Homeland Security; which Freestone says has been a popular area ever since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Part of the curriculum touches on mental health, as well, which is a sensitive topic that has not always been openly discussed in the field. And though it is nothing new, she says that awareness surrounding the subject has increased significantly in recent years and more light is being shed on the importance of processing the complex emotions that come with the job.
“In our policing course, we actually have a couple modules just on the emotional part of [the job] and what it does to you,” Freestone says. “It talks about police suicide, mental health, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and the consequences of the job.”
Nearly 15 years later, there are still incidents Freestone struggles to process and recalls vividly — “as if it just happened.” Even so, she credits some of the best times of her life to her time in law enforcement.
To learn more about University of Arkansas Grantham’s Criminal Justice program, and the career paths you can take, visit https://www.uagrantham.edu/college-of-humanities-and-social-sciences/.