Pioneer Spotlight - Sabina Burton

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Pioneer Spotlight
March 28, 2014

Dr. Sabina Burton, associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, has been teaching for nearly 15 years. She earned a bachelor’s degree in law and a master’s degree in political science in Munich, Germany. She earned a Doctor of Philosophy Degree in social ecology from the University of California-Irvine.

Prior to coming to UW-Platteville, Burton taught a variety of criminology, criminal justice and law courses at two major universities in southern California.

Burton’s main professional interests are forensic psychology, terrorism and cultural diversity. During her doctoral program at UCI she interned at the Regional Police Academy for Los Angeles County (Calif.) where she co-wrote and co-taught its first revised cultural awareness courses.

After completing her master's program in Germany, Burton coordinated political and criminological seminars at one of the leading conference centers of Germany and worked as an intelligence research specialist for the government. She was one of the first women to successfully manage the rigorous training program at the German Federal Law Enforcement Academy.

What drew you into the criminal justice field?
Let me begin by saying that my family was not supportive of my decision to join the criminal justice profession originally. I broke from the family approved career paths to study criminology because of a childhood event that impacted me greatly. My mother’s bicycle was stolen and the police were very professional and impressive in their response. They recovered the bike for us and held the thieves responsible. It wasn’t a major crime but it was a powerful experience that shaped my desire to see justice in the world.

Later in high school as we studied Nazi Germany I was especially interested in the role of the police and factors that enabled Hitler and his henchmen to rise in power. I decided then that I wanted to pursue a career that was focused on preventing crime and atrocities against people. Policing seemed the logical choice to allow me to follow my calling.

What do you enjoy most about teaching at the university level?
I enjoy instructing students in a profession and a system that I greatly appreciate and respect. I get to talk about a subject I am very passionate about and to learn with the students. It is amazing what our students can teach us. I have great respect for high school teachers but I also feel a bit sorry for them. Their students have to be in class; our students pay to be here. College students’ motivation is different and it shows. Teaching at the university level I try to focus on critical thinking and problem solving, giving our students opportunities for research projects and presentations. We are more research oriented than, for example, a tech school which, would focus more on hands on application. As a public institution we don’t have people telling us what to research or what questions to ask. Academic freedom is an amazing thing that frees us to teach the skills our students will need to meet the challenges of the future and unshackles us from obsolete ideas and methods. 

Teaching is a privilege. It is an opportunity to reach out and work with young people who are our future. I am thankful I get to work with people, especially such friendly, smart and fun young people as we have here. They make me smile and give me hope for the future.

What are some of the major differences between the German and United States criminal justice systems?
From the outside both systems look very similar. Both CJ systems are paramilitary in nature and are very professional but a deeper look reveals fascinating differences. Germany’s police system is much more centralized with a federal police agency (uniformed and investigative branch) and 17 state police agencies. Within those states the differences are very small, unlike American state police agencies, which can differ greatly from state to state.

American police are allowed a great deal of discretion while police officers in Germany adhere to the legalistic principle. German police are obligated to investigate and enforce all crimes they encounter. The discretion is not with the police but with the prosecutor.

German police actions are guided by a very detailed police legal code; when and where to arrest, under what circumstances to put handcuffs on a suspect, when to search a suspect, etc. The U.S. is a common law system and relies on case law whereas Germany is a codified system that relies on a plethora of legal codes addressing police actions. In order to accommodate this extensive legality police officers are trained for two-and-a-half years in the academy and police supervisors receive an additional three years of college education. Police commanders are required to attend a two-year accredited MS program at a central police university in Germany. Minimum training requirements in America are much lower.

What area of criminal justice interests you the most and why? 
I am passionate about four areas in particular:

  1. Domestic and global terrorism. My professional background is in federal policing and intelligence. I grew up at a time when the left wing Baader-Meinhoff Gang terrorized Germany. Members of the group were trained in PLO camps and received support and financing from the Soviet KGB and the East German STASI. I became “obsessed” with investigating right and left wing terrorists, trying to understand their motives, modus operandi, signatures, recruitment, indoctrination and violent radicalization.
  2. My second interest, cyber security, ties in with my professional background in intelligence and counter-intelligence. The Internet has provided great opportunities for criminals. Our justice system still lacks technological capabilities, effective policies and trained enforcement personnel with very visible consequences. Law enforcement is still focused on street-crimes while more and more criminals are shifting their criminal activities to the Internet. Educating our students in this subject is of utmost importance if we are to prepare them for the jobs of the future. 
  3. Psychological and predictive profiling. My work and research in counter-terrorism introduced me to profiling techniques. I want to emphasize that racial profiling is destructive and counter-productive to good police work. Scientific profiling is based on a careful analysis of the crime scene, forensic evidence, police reports, interviews and other material. The profiler learns as much as possible about the perpetrator in order to predict his/her next steps and aid in his/her apprehension.
  4. Human trafficking is the second largest organized crime business after drug trafficking. It is even larger than arms trafficking. This is an especially gruesome crime as it reduces human beings to a commodity that can be traded, exchanged, and discarded when no longer valuable. Today, there are more people enslaved in America than at the beginning of the Civil War and less than one percent of human trafficking cases are prosecuted in the United States.  This great injustice seems to be largely ignored by the media and few people really understand the scale of the problem. We have to work on stopping it. In my opinion all criminal justice practitioners and instructors should be passionate about human trafficking.

What advice do you have for high school students who may have an interest in criminal justice?
Talk to CJ practitioners and instructors to get a realistic idea about what it’s like to work in CJ. Don’t believe what television shows you. If you care about people, if you have a passion for justice and fairness, if you like to be around people; this is a great field to get into. UW-Platteville offers a shadow program, which allows high school students to tag along with a CJ major and audit classes to get a feel for the campus and curriculum. Take advantage of this and other opportunities that present themselves. Make yourself knowledgeable about the many different jobs the criminal justice system offers.

Have an open mind and a desire to understand. People are complex. No two offenders or victims or witnesses are alike. Embrace critical thinking. Know that you must take on an active role in this field. Be willing to get out of your comfort zone, speak up and take the lead. Make yourself knowledgeable about crime trends and innovative methods. Criminal justice practitioners carry a huge responsibility and are greatly privileged to serve.

​Interview conducted by: Dan Wackershauser, University Information and Communications.
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