October 02, 2006

Police captain earns Homeland Security degree

By Alicia Ebaugh, Sioux City Journal

Heaps upon heaps of books and files on foreign terrorist activities and how Sept. 11 changed America's lives and laws have found their home with Sioux City Police Capt. Mel Williams.

A spiral-bound, 621-page volume titled "Critical Infrastructure Protection in Homeland Security: Defending a Networked Nation," which explains different computer programs that evaluate the most basic neccesities to keep the country running in case of a terrorist attack. The book "After: How America Confronted the September 12 Era" by Steven Brill, a tale woven from a cross-section of how real people affected by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks dealt with it, from an insurance salesman to a widowed spouse, even a U.S. senator.

Believe it or not, he's read them all and wrote papers discussing many of their ideas. He had to.

Last week, Williams, 52, became the second Iowan ever to graduate with a master's degree in homeland security studies from the Naval Postgraduate School's Center for Homeland Defense and Security in Monterey, Calif. He said he went through the rigorous 18-month program, offered free of charge (including materials and transportation) to qualified public service officials to help them organize and strengthen homeland security efforts at the local, state and federal levels, to do basically that -- bring his newfound knowledge back to Sioux City.

"The whole philosophy of the program is to make it relevant to your community," he said. "What was surprising to me, and I don't know how they pulled it off, was that during every home period, every time I was home doing work, whatever subject we were studying turned up at work."

For example? Immigration, avian bird flu, and even something on which Williams said Sioux City is "ahead of the curve" -- community team policing. Much of the knowledge he gained can be channeled directly to issues at home, he said, such as dealing with animal liberation groups who use terrorist-like actions to free mink from area farms.

"We studied how these groups organize themselves and finance their operations," he said.

Many of the nation's brightest experts in security-related fields are chosen to instruct their classes, Williams said, including psychologist Philip Zimbardo, who conducted the famous 1971 Stanford University prison study that placed college students into the roles of prisoners and jailers.

"He taught us about the psychological aspects of fear and how terrorists use that to promote their causes," he said. "Then we went into fear management, how to help the public react to this, and prepare first responders for it."

Williams graduated from the fifth class of students to earn the degree since it was first offered in 2002. It's held mostly through distance learning online, he said, but he also spent 12 weeks out in Monterey at the start and end of each semester getting into the subjects -- and of course getting loaded down with books.

"We'd get so many and they'd be so heavy we couldn't pack them in our luggage, so we had to FedEx or UPS them home," Williams said. When asked how many pages he's read over the past 550 days, he chuckled, "I haven't a clue. I don't want to know!" He does know, though, that it took him about 16 hours a week to do it.

The reading wasn't the most heavyweight thing about the program, either. Before he was even accepted, Williams had to write five papers, meet the school's qualifications and have signed agreements from City Manager Paul Eckert and Police Chief Joe Frisbie to undertake the schooling while also on the job as head of the police department's uniformed services bureau.

"We send people from our department to training programs all the time to make sure we keep current with what the best practices are across the country," Williams said, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation National Academy.

Williams said the discussions and reading he did for classes broadened his perspectives on homeland security issues and will help him aid in fine-tuning city response plans to natural and man-made disasters.

"The same response needs to occur whenever a disaster happens," he said. "The main question we face is what can we do to protect what's important to us and keep the freedoms we have today?"