CEDAR RAPIDS — A horrible crash early in his career changed Joe Schmitz’s perspective as a police officer from “getting bad guys off the streets” to wanting to know why crimes happen — why people become those “bad guys.”
The head-on collision, which involved an infant without a car seat, was “just messed up” because both drivers shared blame for the crash, said Schmitz, 48, a retired police investigator and accident reconstructionist.
The wreck, he said, made him look for a “greater purpose to policing,” a revelation that continued to evolve during his 27-year career with the Cedar Rapids Police Department.
Schmitz joined the department at age 19 and retired in 2017, when he moved to Kirkwood Community College to teach others about police work.
“Over my years as a police officer, I realized the justice system wasn’t going to change unless we started looking at these offenders like humans, just like us, but something happened to them in their lives,” said Schmitz, an instructor and coordinator of Kirkwood’s criminal justice program.
Schmitz, who grew up in the small Benton County community of Van Horne, said both of his careers have been a perfect fit for him, given his goal of just wanting to help people.
The impulse also led to him to join the Iowa National Guard after graduating from Amana High School — now Clear Creek Amana High School in Tiffin — where he served 16 years, combining that work and training with his law enforcement work.
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He recalls a 2004 fatal crash in his career that led him to become an accident reconstructionist. A male driver, under the influence of drugs, hit and killed a young woman crossing a street in downtown Cedar Rapids. The impact split the woman’s body in two.
He remembers having to explain to the victim’s family what had happened, calling it a “traumatic” event. Initially, he was angry and wanted justice for the family.
Later, he said, he wanted to know what brought the male driver to such a place in his life.
The justice system needs to be more than just putting offenders in prison. It’s also necessary, he said, to figure out why a woman becomes a drug addict, why a man kills someone, why another man sexually abuses a child.
Schmitz said part of his job at Kirkwood is helping students find what’s right for them, even if that takes them away from a criminal justice career.
Not everyone is cut out to be a law enforcement officer, he said, but the criminal justice field has many other job possibilities including victim advocate, correctional officer, forensic science technician, lawyer, fish-and-game warden and private investigator.
As part of his criminal investigation class at Kirkwood, he sets up a mock crime scene to give students hands-on experience. He enlists Cedar Rapids police officers and investigators to run the mock crime scene like a real one.
During such an exercise earlier this month, the investigators took small groups of students through a “murder” scene. The students looked at the evidence and asked questions to solve the crime.
“This is always a fun, creative way to get the students to think about different scenarios and try to find out what happened,” Schmitz said. “I loved my job as a police officer because I loved helping people, and I want to help these kids find what they are passionate about.”
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Schmitz, who earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in criminal justice administration at Kaplan University while he was a police officer, said he always enjoyed teaching.
During his 10 years as an accident reconstructionist, he would go to Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids and teach vehicle safety, physics and set up a mock crash scene. He taught at the Cedar Rapids Police Academy and was an adjunct instructor at Kaplan University.
Cedar Rapids police Capt. Brent Long said he wasn’t surprised Schmitz went into teaching after retiring from the force.
“When he came in to talk to me, I knew it was hard decision for him to make,” Long said. “He might have done both if he could.”
Long said Schmitz was good about explaining the forensic computer work he did as an investigator with the Iowa Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.
The multijurisdictional task force investigates internet child pornography, sexual exploitation and other cybercrimes. It takes a “special person” to keep up with the technology and also not carry what he sees home with him, Long said.
Schmitz, who worked as an investigator with the task force from 2008 until his retirement, said he enjoyed analyzing computer forensics. Although it was difficult to review thousands of images of child pornography, he found it “intriguing” because it reinforced his belief that — right now — the criminal justice system lacks solutions to such crimes.
“What leads a person to do these horrible things?” Schmitz asked. “I think we have to try to figure that out in order to help these people. I’m not excusing what they’ve done or saying they don’t deserve to go to prison, but nothing changes if we don’t figure it out.”
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