Houston Police Offers Student Internships

Heather Lewis at the Houston Police Department Family Violence Unit
Heather Lewis did an internship at the Houston Police Department Westside Family Violence Unit.

Heather Lewis witnessed domestic violence up close and personal during her internship.

Cesar Garcia assisted police in preparing key evidence in child sexual abuse cases by summarizing the interview tapes from young victims.

Both Lewis and Garcia, seniors at Sam Houston State University’s College of Criminal Justice, spent this fall working in internships with the Houston Police Department. It was their final course – and final semester – before graduating in December and transitioning to a career in the field. These are just two of the varied internship opportunities available at one of the largest municipal departments in the United States.

"At Sam Houston, I had taken a family violence course," said Lewis. "I read books, with many scenarios and true stories. But books are totally different than real life experience. You might read a book on family violence and domestic violence. But it is different to go through the process of an interview with witnesses, suspects and victims."

Lewis worked in the Family Violence Unit at Houston’s Westside Station. She served as a greeter for victims coming into the office, and she witnessed firsthand the brutality of the crime, the swollen faces hidden behind sunglasses, the woman bleeding after being stabbed in the neck. She also learned to watch body language and how some victims lie in the process.

"You can’t take people for granted; you don’t know people’s stories," Lewis said. "You have to learn not to judge people. You have to understand and try to fix the whole picture."

Cesar Garcia at the Child Assessment Center
Cesar Garcia assisted the Houston Police Department in the Juvenile Sex Crimes Unit during his internship.

For Garcia, the hardest part of the job was listening to the victims' statements. The best part was working side-by-side with police officers at the Juvenile Sex Crimes Unit at the Houston Police Department. The unit is a partner agency at The Children’s Assessment Center, which include law enforcement, medical and mental health professionals and governmental investigative agencies with the common goal of protecting children.

"I have two nieces and a nephew who are pretty important to me," said Garcia. "The hardest part was listening to what the kids say. It takes an emotional toll. The best part was working with the officers. They are good people. What I noticed was the attitude of the officers. It’s a hard job, but they manage to be happy."

For Lewis and Garcia, one of the highlights of their internship was their work in the field. Garcia got to accompany officers in field interviews with witnesses, even serving as an interpreter. Lewis tagged along on an early morning warrant roundup and helped capture four of six suspects charged with varying degrees of domestic violence.

Each year, about 125 students in the College of Criminal Justice are selected for internship programs, including federal, state, county and local law enforcement and correction agencies as well victims’ services and private security. Internships, generally offered during the senior year, include a full-time, 40-hour assignment in an agency for a semester. Undergraduates earn nine semester hour credits and graduate students earn six.

"We want the best students out there,” said Dr. Jim Dozier, Criminal Justice Internship Coordinator. "Many times internships segue into employment in the sponsoring agency. All allow for establishing networks that enhance career opportunities. Internship is a privilege, not a right, and these placements are competitive."

Sgt. Richard L. Hahn of the HPD Juvenile Sex Crimes Unit said Garcia played an important role in the process, providing a synopsis of the interview that could serve as evidence in court. He said the experience is valuable for future law enforcement careers because it teaches students how to handle these types of cases and how to talk to children.

"When I was in college, we didn’t have internships," said Hahn. “We didn’t have this opportunity. I’m an advocate of internships. What you learn in the classroom is theory, penal and criminal code. Here you get hands-on experience and you can see it in action and why we learn those statutes."

Dee Wilker, a senior police service officer at the Westside’s Family Violence Unit, said the experience is "eye-opening" for students and "liberating" for agencies.

"It’s been liberating" said Wilker, a retired HPD homicide detective. "She goes out and greets people. We have to know who we are speaking to and require a photo id. She has learned to work the computer and the HPD system. She gets all information ready for our interview. She has been a real help to us."

The internship has peaked Lewis' interest in working with domestic violence, and she wants to take more graduate classes in the area. Garcia is ready to pursue a career in law enforcement once he becomes a U.S. citizen in January.

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