Being transported in the backseat of a police cruiser usually isn’t considered to be a smart career move. But in the case of Jackie Acosta, childhood ride-alongs helped pave the road to her becoming an award-winning law enforcement officer.

The father of Acosta’s childhood best friend was a police captain, and “he used to take us to school in his patrol car and I always told him I wanted to be just like him when I grew up,” she recalled.

And when she grew up, that’s pretty much what happened.

Acosta spent more than a decade working road patrol, property crime, narcotics/vice, crimes against persons and other assignments with the Melbourne (Florida) Police Department. She rose to the rank of detective before joining U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in 2008 as a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).

“As special agents, we have many duties and responsibilities,” said Acosta, who also is an adjunct professor in Florida Institute of Technology’s 100% online Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice program. “We conduct many types of investigation. We have legal authority to enforce a diverse array of immigration and federal criminal statutes.”

Those crimes can range from money laundering and intellectual property theft to human trafficking and art heists. Investigations have taken Acosta to Mexico and Colombia, among other locations, and she says her background as a Spanish-speaking immigrant from the Dominican Republic has helped her work.

“It provides me the ability to better understand some of the people I encounter,” she said.

At Florida Tech, Acosta teaches courses in Criminal Investigation and Introduction to Criminal Justice.

“Having experience in criminal justice makes a big difference in how you keep your audience engaged in the class,” she said.

Acosta has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, as well as master’s in public administration and criminal justice.

“When young women ask me about a career in law enforcement, I tell them to get a college education first, so they have options when looking for a job.”

We spoke with Special Agent Acosta recently about the need to attract more women to the profession, the role of social media as an investigative tool and her favorite TV investigator.

Q. Tell us about your background and how you developed an interest in law enforcement?

I started my law enforcement career at the local police department, where I spent 13 years and left as a detective. I also taught defensive tactics and physical fitness at the local police academy for five years, and I have been an adjunct professor for nine years. I developed an interest for law enforcement when I was very young. My best friend’s dad was a captain at the local police department and he told me that in order to be in law enforcement I had to stay out of trouble. He used to take us to school in his patrol car and I always told him, I wanted to be just like him when I grew up. While in college I did a few ride-alongs with the local police department, at which time I decided to apply for the police academy.  

Q. You have undergraduate and graduate degrees in Criminal Justice. How have your educational qualifications helped you advance your career in law enforcement?

My education has significantly enhanced my work performance and career potential. As many people would say, ‘Knowledge is power,’ and if you can apply the knowledge and experience to the workday, you will achieve better success. It has also helped me in obtaining a special agent position with ICE-HSI, because of the knowledge and experience I have in the criminal justice field. To become a special agent, you must meet the education and/or experience requirements, show evidence of having the required skills and pass a written test.

Q. You were named Detective of the Year during your 13 years with the Melbourne Police Department. Which case gave you the most satisfaction and why?

This is a tough question as the majority of my cases gave me satisfaction, since I was able to help the victims. I think the case that gave me the most satisfaction was dismantling a heroin organization where children were present during the drug operations. The suspects received an enhanced penalty for endangering their children in the commission of a crime and the children were removed from their custody. The majority of the members received a life sentence because numerous people died from the heroin they were selling. Removing these people from the streets and stopping them from hurting more people was the ultimate result.

Q. More than a century after the nation’s first policewoman began walking the beat, women account for just 12% of sworn officers. What steps should be taken to increase that number?

I believe education and recruitment are the best way to increase the number of women in law enforcement. Police departments should go to colleges and speak to students in the criminal justice field to educate them about law enforcement jobs. The law enforcement culture needs to change in order to increase the number of women in law enforcement. The mentality that law enforcement is a male-dominated field needs to change; we can start this change by diversifying the management staff. When you have women in the management staff, other women will look up to them, providing a role model figure.

Q. What advice do you give to young women interested in a career in the criminal justice system?

When young women ask me about a career in law enforcement, I tell them to get a college education first so they have options when looking for a job. I explain to them that a college degree gives them the option of applying for a local, state or federal government job. I also advise them to go on ride-alongs with various police departments, so they can see first-hand what the job is really about. Also, they can see first-hand that everything they see on television and on the news is not always true. I encourage them to participate in internships, so they can decide if they want to pursue a job in the state system or federal system.

Q. Does the fact that you’re an immigrant and a native Spanish speaker impact your work as a special agent with ICE-HSI?

Actually, being an immigrant and Spanish speaker has helped me in my job. It provides me the ability to better understand some of the people I encounter. The citizens that I encounter tend to trust me more than other agents because I understand the process they have to go through. 

Q. Can you tell us about the courses you teach in Florida Tech’s 100% online Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice program?

The Criminal Investigation and Introduction to Criminal Justice classes I teach online at Florida Tech are very similar to my real-world job. The Criminal Investigation class teaches the students the basics on how to conduct an investigation. Many of my students enjoy the fact that they learn the process we use to investigate a case. I teach students the basics of conducting a burglary, arson and rape investigation; the difference between an interview and an interrogation; how to compare the cause and manner of death; drug trafficking organizations; and several other types of investigations and different tools to use during the investigations. The Introduction to Criminal Justice class teaches students about various components, including crime trends, crime statistics, victimology, crime prevention, using discretion and justice policy.

Q. How does your real-world experience impact your classroom instruction in Florida Tech’s Criminal Justice program?

Having experience in criminal justice makes a big difference in how you keep your audience engaged in the class. The experience allows the student not only to ask questions but also to receive information from someone who has knowledge about the topics being taught. Real-world experience helps me teach the material in the textbook and elaborate further with facts from real-case scenarios. Students learn better when you explain a subject utilizing real scenarios or information.

Q. What have been the biggest changes in police work since you started your law enforcement career 20 years ago?

This is a great question because the biggest change I have noticed is how citizens portray law enforcement. Citizens don’t respect law enforcement like they used to 20 years ago; I don’t know if that is due to modern technology. When I started in law enforcement, we didn’t have all the technology that is available to law enforcement today. For example, we had to handwrite all our police reports. Now, everyone has computers to write reports. We didn’t have video cameras. Now, all the police cars have video cameras and some police departments are issuing video cameras to wear on the uniform in order to capture everything the police officers do. With all the new technology, people have lost trust, causing police agencies to change their policies and procedures.

Q. What is the role of social media in your investigative work?

Social media can be a great investigative tool. We have used social media in solving many cases. Some of the information gathered from social media can have evidentiary value and can be used against someone during an investigation. Social media has a wealth of information that can be used in preventing crimes and tragedies before they occur. For example, there was a case where the person was posting on Facebook that they were going to commit suicide. Law enforcement was able to locate the person before they caused harm to themselves. Another example is of organized crime members posting photos on Instagram, which helped law enforcement dismantle a criminal enterprise.

Beat the Buzzer Round

Q. Who are your role models?

My No. 1 role model is my father. He has taught me to always stay positive and that with respect, integrity and honesty anything can be accomplished.

Q. Of the many on-screen portrayals of female detectives and special agents, who is your favorite character and why?

My favorite character is Bones (Emily Erin Deschanel). I like the character Bones because I can identify with her more. The show is very similar to what goes on in law enforcement in the real world, minus a few of the fictional technology solving techniques.

Q. What three words best describe your career in law enforcement?

Always learning something!

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