Patrol Sgt. Michael Ander has spent most of his life in “Valley of the Sun” and has witnessed the incredible growth in the region. The massive migration of new residents meant more new housing, more new businesses, and greater pressure on police agencies to build trust and connections with their evolving communities.
This is what drew Michael to the concept of social justice.
“What you learn in the police academy is what’s happening then,” the 2022 University of Arizona Global Campus (UAGC) graduate says. “But that information can become irrelevant over time, and community-oriented policing is something that’s always changing because the community changes.”
Social justice wasn’t a term Michael was familiar with before he started pursuing his Bachelor of Arts in Social and Criminal Justice at UAGC. The term, at its core, refers to equality and fairness for all individuals. While criminal justice, as Michael explains, focuses on different branches of government, how law enforcement agencies operate, and the courts, social justice examines the differences – economic, cultural, race, etc. – that separate people in society, and what can be done to ensure there is inclusion and impartiality, especially during interactions between citizens and police officers.
“Social justice seeks to understand the why,” Michael says. “Why people don’t have the same opportunities and why some people need more humanity than others. It’s really broadened my horizons as a police officer in how I approach the community. How can I, on a very micro scale, recognize that the person in front of me — who may have been accused of or committed a crime — deserves the same rights as someone who may have committed a different crime?”
Knowing how to apply social justice principles, which he now does every day, doesn’t “change the rules,” Michael explains. Rather, it just creates a greater understanding of people, and why, if a police officer is noticing the same person over and over again, they may need different resources or opportunities to help them.
In a region with an expanding population, being able to recognize “the distribution of how society works” is essential for Michael’s job, and his bachelor’s degree has given him the knowledge and perspective to tackle the challenges of a growing community with greater empathy.
It’s also put him in a position to take his career to the next level.
Seizing the Day
Like many adult learners, Michael was hesitant about returning to school to finish his degree. He had left college in 2011, the day he was accepted into the police academy.
“I stepped out to take the call in the middle of class,” he recalls. “They offered me the job over the phone, and I went back to finish the day, but realized I wasn’t able to do both because the academy was full-time.”
Fast-forward more than a decade, and Michael had reached a ceiling in his law enforcement career. In order to get to the next level and become a lieutenant, he would need a bachelor’s degree. More than that, he says, he wanted the degree to fill in the knowledge gaps created by the passing of time.
“There was a small piece of the puzzle missing, certain things that I never touched on except for maybe a two-hour training block quarterly or annually,” he says. “It’s just a drop in the bucket. I only had a couple classes left to finish at my community college. I kept saying, ‘It’s not a good time,’ but eventually you realize there’s never a better time than now.”
Finding the right university was a bit of a challenge at first, and Michael ran into an early stumbling block on his quest to “update” his mindset. The first online college he applied to and was accepted into appeared reputable, until he opened his first textbook.
“One of the first things I clicked on was a video that appeared to be shot on a VHS camcorder,” he recalls. “Then, the first class was on terrorism and the first thing in the textbook is from the year 2000.”
“I dove deeper and realized all of this information is 15–20 years old, and so is the technology. That’s when I realized, ‘What am I going to learn here? This is not going to benefit anybody.’”
When Michael found UAGC, he was able to secure a full-ride scholarship – one of six students to earn the honor – through a partnership between the University and his previous community college, Rio Salado College in Arizona.
Not only was he impressed by the relevance of his UAGC curriculum, but he also appreciated the diversity of his online classroom.
“At work, we receive a lot of training, but there are certain things that don’t equate to what you learn in school because it doesn’t involve the research,” he explains. “At school, you do the research, you discuss these concepts with your peers.
“I was interacting with people from the other side of the country, the middle of the country, even internationally – and learning what it all means for other people.”
The diversity of Michael’s UAGC classroom, in a way, mirrored the diversity of the citizens in his community – people he interacts with on a daily basis. Learning alongside like-minded professionals — including some without criminal justice backgrounds — was invigorating and allowed him to see how others view police officers.
Serving the Community
Michael is not just the first member of his family to earn a bachelor’s degree, but he’s also the first to become a member of law enforcement. Growing up, it was something he was always attracted to, though he admits everything he knew about criminal justice was from TV until he went to UAGC.
He never refers to policing as a job. Instead, it’s a career, and one that strengthens his connection to the citizens in the region where he grew up.
“Serving the community is important to me, and the things I learned in school help me be a better problem-solver based off what I’ve learned about the needs of the community,” he says.
Michael’s expanded view of social justice is already a tremendous benefit in his day-to-day interactions with the public, and he wants to take on even bigger challenges now that he has a degree.
“It opens a door if I want to test for the next rank of lieutenant,” he says. “That’s something that comes up about once a year. It hasn’t opened yet since I’ve had my degree, but when it does later this year, I’ll be able to put in for the next rank.”
As a sergeant, Michael oversees police officers and spends more time in the field responding to calls. A promotion to lieutenant, he explains, would give him the chance to be involved in more community-focused projects. At that level, he could serve as the department’s liaison to schools, churches, homeowners associations, and other groups, bringing a broader perspective and the capability to address challenges or gaps in communication.
“It’s being able to apply what I’ve learned in school to different viewpoints and say, ‘Here’s a more in-depth solution to a community-based problem,’” he says. “I think being in this profession, you touch a lot of lives in different ways.”