Although many Concord Academy students have spent a good deal of time considering the workings of the criminal justice system, it’s not every day that they get the chance to hear from law enforcement officers what policing looks like from their perspectives. On April 20, an extended Community and Equity assembly was moderated by student leaders Mary Craig ’17 and Kunaal Verma ’17, who posed questions from the Student Council and affinity groups, followed by an open Q&A. On stage were detectives Lanita Cullinane ’91, from the Boston Police Department, and Vittoria Incandela, from the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office Investigative Bureau in Chicago. Earlier that day, the two officers had visited history teacher Stephanie Manzella’s Crime and Punishment class. At the assembly, they opened up for the entire body of students, faculty, and staff — about the realities of law enforcement officers’ day-to-day lives, the threats they face, and the difference they can make in the communities they serve and protect.
To begin, the detectives offered candid responses to questions about the Black Lives Matter movement and police shootings. “When it happens to any police officer, you think, ‘It could have been me,’” Vittoria said. “When it happens to a civilian, that’s also how we feel. We know what it’s like to have a gun in our face.” Cullinane called race the most visible aspect of confrontations gone wrong, but she said she tries to make assessments case by case. “Initially I take race out,” she said. “I see what, procedurally and tactically, was done right or wrong, then I put those other pieces back in. Yes, there are issues with law enforcement and people of color, but it’s not every situation.” Both described the psychological toll of regularly facing death and how they cope, whether by compartmentalizing or coming to terms with the threat. And both agreed that body cameras make everyone safer; Cullinane instructs her recruits to go through life as though they’re always being recorded.
The detectives also addressed the challenges they face as women in law enforcement. “I get underestimated a lot, and I love it,” said Incandela, a slim woman who described herself as weighing “a buck-twenty, soaking wet.” Her stature is a fact she can’t ignore when facing down a towering suspect, and it means she may engage in a confrontation differently from her larger, male peers — whether that’s threatening faster with her firearm or offering a warning with a ready smile. Not being perceived as a threat has its advantages: Dressed in plain clothes, she’s approachable on the streets, and she likes it that way. She sees a major part of her job as building positive relationships with children whose encounters with the police might otherwise come only when their parents are facing trouble, either as victims or as perpetrators. And whenever she’s been told she can’t do something — such as from an instructor in the Police Academy who was set on failing her — it has only hardened her resolve.
Similarly, Cullinane described an early difficulty with firing her weapon with small hands and the anxiety she felt for years when heading to the range to requalify — something she’s able to do now with no sweat. “Today, don’t mess with me when it comes to shooting,” she said with a laugh.
From the adrenaline rush of a drug bust to an enduring drive to improve children’s lives, a number of passions influenced these detectives’ careers. Neither had set their sights early on law enforcement. Vittoria’s career had begun in the fashion industry, when she worked for Hugo Boss in Spain and Portugal. Hobnobbing with celebrities sounded great on paper but soon came to seem empty as she started considering a career in service. While working as a journalist for Forbes in Peru, she met FBI agents who turned her on to the possibility of police work. Back in the United States, while mentoring in a Black and Latino Achievers program, she had a chance to ride along with drug interdiction officers. That night, they recovered a truck with $12 million worth of drugs. “I was hooked,” she said. She kept asking for another ride-along until she was advised to apply to the police department herself. She did. After starting in undercover narcotics work, she’s now involved strictly in investigations. She’s also a member of a task force that investigates in-custody deaths and police-involved shootings.
Likewise, Cullinane has had a roundabout career path. She had planned to pursue advertising but instead ended up studying criminal justice at Northeastern University. Working in the Police Department allowed her to develop a diverse skill set, including instructing — she’s adamant about the importance of thorough training — and public speaking. She has even become a fitness instructor, something she never could have imagined doing. She’s deeply committed to her work countering domestic violence and human trafficking, in particular, and she spends her free time mentoring.
Some of the stories these detectives recounted had a good dose of humor and surreality. Asked what effect social media has had on her job, Incandela said that she’s too concerned about privacy to use it personally. “But I love that criminals use Facebook,” she said, citing complete conversations between gang members that have been instrumental to many of her cases. “There’s no better evidence,” she said. She recounted that she once even posed online as a record producer to lure gang members, who were also rappers, out from hiding in order to force them into a court appearance.
Incandela and Cullinane also corrected some student misperceptions of basic police work, such as that they’re trained to “shoot to kill” — they’re actually trained in de-escalation techniques along a force continuum. They’re also not obliged to hand out strict penalties for laws they may disagree with. In Illinois, all children under age 7 have to ride in a car seat. If she pulls over someone whose kids aren’t, Incandela doesn’t give them a ticket; she goes and buys them a car seat. “There are very few laws that say ‘shall,’” Cullinane added, and those are for things like violations of active restraining orders. Beyond those, officers have broad discretion to enforce. For example, she might not automatically arrest someone driving without a license, but instead might have their car towed or make them get on a bus. “We always consider other options short of arrest,” she said.
The detectives were frank about the state of the criminal justice system in general, acknowledging the ineffectiveness of strict sentencing as a deterrent for drug users and penalties that are too lenient for repeat violent offenders. Cullinane stressed that without adequate “wraparound services” such as employment opportunities, housing, and medical care, the system couldn’t be improved. In other words, police alone can’t fix the problems. What’s needed is a collaborative, cohesive approach.
Students were challenged by hearing from a perspective that isn’t often heard in the CA community. The assembly asked them to listen carefully to nuanced points of view, even when they disagreed with some things they heard. With plenty of real-world examples and situational analysis, the assembly met its goal of engaging students in thoughtful and critical reflection about the role of law enforcement in our society.