Former DEA/ATF Agent Seeks Ph.D. to Teach

Deborah Sibila

Deborah Sibila already had a 22-year career working for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE) before she came to the College of Criminal Justice for her Ph.D.

Now she wants to teach the next generation of law enforcement professionals.

"My strength is that being a practitioner, I can bring a unique perspective to teaching," said Sibila, who is in the second year of the Ph.D. program. "I always remember wanting to be a cop to help people and to make a difference. But I knew there was life after the job, and that I would have to prepare for that. I knew one day, I would come back and want to share what I had learned through my career with the next generation of law enforcement professionals."

Sibila, who participated in Sam Houston State University ROTC program, received her bachelor's degree in criminal justice from the college in 1980. Within three weeks of graduation, she reported to the Military Police School at Fort McClellan, Alabama for Officer Basic Training. Her initial assignment as a Second Lieutenant was at Ft. Knox, Kentucky with the 543rd Military Police (MP) Company. She served as a platoon leader for a garrison MP Company responsible for routine law enforcement duties on a major military installation.

Sibila still vividly recalls her first public disturbance call at the military bowling alley, where she had to call for backup when a fight between patrons turned into a parking lot brawl. Approximately 50 drunk and disorderly soldiers, who didn’t particularly like law enforcement, had surrounded her and three of her MPs. Luckily, reinforcements arrived on the scene with two military patrol dogs that rapidly dispersed the crowd. I really learned how to appreciate dog handlers that night, said Sibila.

"Nothing really trains you for that first incident," Sibila said. "You’re about to get your butt kicked, but you have to keep your head and make sure that your people do their jobs professionally while still looking after themselves and the people they’re suppose to protect."

After Fort Knox, Sibila was reassigned to Fort McClellan to the 12th MP Battalion, where she was responsible for coordinating training for six MP companies. Sibila left active duty after four years and took a job with the Defense Investigative Service, where she conducted background investigations for military and Department of Defense personnel seeking Top Secret clearances. The job entailed interviewing neighbors, colleagues and friends; credit and criminal history checks; and conducting in-depth personal interviews.

"You got good at interviewing people and eliciting information that they do not necessarily want to give you," said Sibila, "Writing and the ability to communicate were extremely important. If you can’t write, it gives the appearance that you are stupid at worse and merely incompetent at best. It takes away your credibility as an investigator."

Sibila moved to Houston in 1987 when she was hired as a Special Agent for BATFE, a federal agency charged with protecting communities from violent criminal and organizations; the illegal use and trafficking of firearms and explosives; acts of arson, bombing and terrorism; and the illegal diversion of alcohol and tobacco. She spent a year investigating arson for profit in the commercial sector, following businesses burned for the insurance proceeds. Sibila also worked with a joint task force gang unit consisting of members from the BATFE, DEA and Houston Police Department. While assigned to the unit, she worked undercover work, posing as the girlfriend of a biker gang member.

"I liked the undercover work," said Sibila. "It was like play acting."

The job taught her how to develop informants and about interagency cooperation.

Because of her work with the DEA, she was offered a job in 1991 at the agency, a position she held until 2009. Again, she was involved in undercover work, and she recalls orchestrating a significant buy-bust to capture a major dealer just one week out of the academy. After offering to sell 50 kilos of cocaine, Sibila was able to arrest the suspects and seize $50,000 in cash and five cars.

"I drove away in a BMW on New Year’s Eve 1991," Sibila said. "There were agents running all around. We got five vehicles, money and three search warrants."

Sibila was promoted to Supervisory Special Agent in 1999 and transferred to Brownsville, Texas. While in Brownsville, Sibila supervised a task force group targeting a Mexican drug cartel responsible for the transportation of drugs across the Mexican border. In those days, Mexico was merely a conduit for cocaine and marijuana from South America. Today, Mexico is a major producer of drugs, such as crystal ice, methamphetamines and ecstasy.

Sibila recalled that life with DEA was often times stressful. There were the long hours in addition to working day in and day out with the criminal element. Sometimes, she saw fellow agents failing to follow proper protocol in situations that were potentially dangerous for the agent(s) and co-workers. In those days, there were few outside friends. The job became your life.

"It’s an ‘us verses them’ attitude. I saw the reality of it,” Sibila recalls.

After Brownsville, Sibila spent three years assigned to DEA Headquarters in Washington D.C. While there, she was responsible for writing operational policy that governed DEA law enforcement operations throughout the world. In 2005, Sibila was granted a hardship transfer to the DEA Office in San Antonio, Texas in order to care for her terminally ill mother. In San Antonio, Sibila supervised an enforcement group with approximately 10 – 12 agents. She retired in July 2009 and started the PhD program at SHSU less than a month later.

Ever since sitting in Dr. Sam Souryal’s class as a undergraduate student at SHSU, Sibila thought she would like to teach. Armed with Hazelwood grants provided to qualified Texas veterans, she returned to the college to pursue her doctoral degree.

"I see myself teaching," said Sibila. "I got a sneak peak by doing Real Talk and speaking to LAE (Lambda Alpha Epsilon fraternity). I felt myself coming alive. When they ask me what its like, I can tell then I’ve been there."

In addition to her classes and studies, Sibila is also working with Dr. Michael S. Vaughn as a research assistant. Her primary responsibility is as the production editor at Inquiry, a journal revived at SHSU that examines critical thinking across the disciplines.

"Deborah has the practical experience to be a professor of criminal justice. She can bring her extensive field knowledge to the classroom, giving back to future generations of students," said Vaughn.

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