In the Spotlight: Rich Schak, Director of Criminal Justice program
by Mark Donahue
If you try to imagine the classic Chicago cop — the guy on the beat, the detective working a fresh crime scene, the supervisor in the field — he might look something like Rich Schak. The Chicago native is a 30-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department, but he's also an experienced educator. And he's brought both phases of his professional life to NLU as head of the new Criminal Justice program.
In a long, rewarding career in police work, Rich said he learned empathy from his interactions with the people of Chicago, and the experience changed him forever. He's now sharing that life perspective — and those decades of skills working a beat, investigating crime scenes and much more — with students looking to find a path in CJ.
There's no doubt Rich knows law enforcement and investigation, but he also knows the experience of adult learners and other non-traditional college students. Rich wants to give students as much exposure to career options as possible through real-world work in NLU's crime lab classroom, hoping to inspire them to find their calling — just as he once did.
A Job to Look Up to
"When I was young, policemen in the neighborhood where I grew up on the West Side of Chicago were important figures," Rich said. "Key figures. They were leaders; they were coaches; they were the guy you went to when you had an issue, a problem, you couldn't get home they found a way to get you home. And I always looked up to them."
Out of high school, Rich wanted to become one of these police officers. In the '60s, the Chicago Police Department had an entry option for young people in college called the cadet program, so Rich first took a test to become a police cadet while also beginning his college studies. The cadet program was like a paid internship, with cadets doing things like clerical work at police stations. It was a humble start, but it paid dividends throughout Rich's career.
He also served in the Army, and when he returned he had already taken the police officer's test, so he was sworn in at age 20, younger than the standard CPD age requirement because of his cadet time. Rich's first patrol was the 18th District, an assignment that included Michigan Avenue and the Gold Coast but also the old Cabrini Green projects — "a very interesting place to work" in the late '60s and early '70s, he said.
He moved to a tactical team as a plainclothes officer then was part of a pickpocket detail on Michigan Ave. Because of his cadet time, he was able to take the detective test early and was promoted to detective in 1973, assigned to the homicide unit at Area 5 on the Northwest Side. As a young detective, Rich said his peers helped him find some much needed maturity.
"I was there and I was young and I was cocky and I was arrogant, and I had some growing up to do, and some of the fellas I worked with helped me and I still maintain relationships with some of them today 40 years later — they helped me grow up," he said.
Rich worked 27 years on homicide, taking part in some of the highest-profile cases in Chicago over the last 10 years of his career. In between this he was detailed in the FBI for a short time investigating organized crime, and he also worked as a hostage negotiator on more than 30 incidents. He did some TV work as well, was profiled in the Chicago Tribune and even met three presidents.
Near the end of his police career, Rich realized that because of his early days in the cadets, he would be able to retire at 50. He took the sergeant's test — for the better pension — and was promoted and assigned to the 15th District on the West Side, in the area where he grew up. It seemed like a nice poetic ending to his long career, but it was not without danger. In 1999, Rich was shot in the chest in the line of duty. By that time his oldest son had become a police officer too and was one of the first cars on the scene. A Kevlar vest saved his life.
Rich received a CPD Blue Star for this and in 2000 turned in his gun and badge. He loved the job and loved the work but said he knew it was time to retire. With more time now on his hands earlier in life than many Americans, it was also time to think about what to do next.
Launching a Program
Rich was the director of a private investigation company for a while but felt it was too much like his old job. He had been an adjunct professor at Lewis University at the end of his police career and once trained police in Albania for the State Department, so he decided to jump full time into education. He worked at three institutions prior to NLU, including two for-profits as the chair of their criminal justice departments.
At NLU, Rich has had the opportunity to build a CJ program from the ground up. Launched in the fall of 2012, the B.A. in Criminal Justice offers two majors for students: administration and forensic social justice. Rich said there are currently around 60 students enrolled in the program, with 15 adjunct professors teaching. A third of the classes are offered in Chicago, a third in Wheeling and a third online.
He's come around to a new way of describing what students get when they come to NLU.
"I don't necessarily like the term 'hands-on,'" Rich said. "I like the word 'experiential.' The reason being is that it's not really hands-on training. I'm not teaching anybody to be a fingerprint expert. I'm teaching somebody what it's like to do the work."
NLU's program boasts an impressive array of equipment in the new Chicago crime lab classroom to get students acclimated to that work, including an automated fingerprint identification system the size of something a small- or medium-sized police department would have. There's also a fuming chamber, which uses heated superglue fumes to coat objects and bring fingerprints into relief for better analysis.
In the intro to forensics class, taught by a forensic scientist, students tackle weekly topics, including not only fingerprinting but analysis of blood, tire tracks and bullets. Rich said he tries to make things as realistic as possible, from mock interviews and interrogations to NLU's new shooting simulator.
Housed in a room at Chicago campus, the simulator is the same system used to train police officers and certify military service members for use of firearms. It's also portable, so Rich can take it to other campuses. The shooting simulator places students in high-pressure situations that might require the use of force: a hostage-taking on a bus, a man wielding a knife inside a hospital, etc.
"I'm not making you into a gunfighter," Rich said. "I'm doing nothing more than letting you experience what it's like to be in a situation."
This is certainly the most bracing way of getting someone's feet wet that NLU's CJ program has to offer, but all of it is part of one goal: to help students find the path that's right for them.
Preparing for the Next Step
"I find that criminal justice people don't change their major if they do a good job," Rich said. "They change what they want to do with their major, and that's what I'm looking at."
NLU's Criminal Justice program can prepare students to take their careers in any number of directions: from police work to private security or investigation, corrections, juvenile justice, counseling, victim advocacy, cyber-security and much more.
Rich is continuing to promote this kind of career diversity as he looks to expand CJ offerings to a third NLU campus this year and have more online options for classes while still maintaining the experiential touch in the crime lab.
In addition, he's also launched a live speaker series focusing on different aspects of criminal justice. One event earlier this year, "In Her Shoes," took the experiential approach to showing participants the hard place victims of domestic violence find themselves in. Attendees were given roles of victims and depending on subsequent cards they received, had to shuttle children and possessions back and forth from homes and hospitals.
Ultimately through these efforts, Rich wants to help students discover their niche in a field that they can find rewarding, perhaps for a lifetime.
"I want them to get on a career path that will work for them, so if their thinking is flawed, we try to fix those flaws," he said. "If their thinking is on point, then we solidify it and at the same time give them some experience in a few areas that maybe they can use."