By Sheila Pursglove
Statistics can impact jury awards, negotiations, and client concerns – as students learn in Penny Fischer’s LAW509B “Analytical Methods for Lawyers-Statistics” at Michigan State University College of Law.
“My students often comment they weren’t aware of the role statistics can play in their own careers and how social science has many platforms to share in legal work,” Fischer says. “There’s a recognition that other disciplines beyond their law classes can help them gain new experiences and credentials to assist them in the pursuits after law school.”
A captain with the MSU Police Department–Emergency Management and Special Events Division, Fischer started teaching as an adjunct at MSU Law in 2010. Her one-credit elective course is within a series of similar courses that can be combined to fulfill a traditional three-credit course and gain specific skills for law practice.
“My passion is to ensure the next generation of lawyers or criminal justice professionals has the skills needed in the complex, global environment to make our professions better than when we arrived – I know that sounds like a greeting card, but it’s truly what drives me,” she says. “Also, with my dual degrees in law and criminal justice, this uniquely allows me to see how both the practice of law and the study of statistics can provide resources to students not otherwise found in traditional law classes.”
In her own student days, Fischer waited four years out of high school to attend college – then more than made up ground by earning a B.S. in criminal justice from Grand Valley State University, an M.S. and Ph.D. in criminal justice from MSU, and a law degree from Cooley.
After landing in an “Introduction to Criminal Justice” class after her first semester at GVSU, she was hooked – not surprisingly, since law enforcement/criminal justice is in her blood. Her father served as a Reserve Deputy in a local county and her grandfather worked for the Grand Rapids Police Department before pursuing an invention for police motorcycles, then becoming a gunsmith.
At MSU, Fischer oversees a group of seven officers that has deployed for a mass Spartan Stadium evacuation of more than 70,000 fans on two occasions this year due to weather events, a power outage that impacted about one-fifth of the MSU campus that included critical research, and severe winter weather shutdowns that impacted community resources.
“My job is to be forward-thinking to stay engaged in what hazards may be present and complete plans, training and exercises to develop the needed skills in our community to keep MSU safe and secure,” she says. “Being part of an institution that excels in policing gives me many opportunities to explore new concepts, create new partnerships and develop exciting new ideas.”
She serves on a variety of internal and external committees in support of this mission. Internally, she leads the MSU Emergency Operations Center when it is opened to handle any large-scale disaster response. The center includes more than 45 key stakeholders from across the university, each with a different role to manage.
She also serves as a liaison member on the Region One Homeland Security Planning Board representing colleges and universities in eight counties surrounding Lansing and Ingham County. The board receives and disseminates critical assets for response and recovery; and her position has allowed MSU to net more than $1 million in grant funding over the last 10 years for equipment, training and exercising.
Fischer manages the training of MSU department and university members in Critical Incident Management Skills that include Incident Command System, WebEOC, and Response to Active Violence Situations. She champions an inter-disciplinary mindset in her division that recognizes the department’s role as greater than an individual charge as law enforcement officers to create internal and external partnerships with the local city government, county government, private industries, state government and federal assets.
“Disasters know no boundaries and MSU is rich in resources to keep our community safe,” she says.
She is also a paid consultant for Comprehensive Emergency Management Associates (CEMA) to provide assistance with planning, training and exercises for a variety of clients. Participating in exercises throughout Michigan – including Incident Command Systems, Triage for First Responders, and hospital emergency operation center skills – as both a controller and exercise evaluator has allowed her to develop emergency management skills beyond her current job.
Beginning her policing career a few years after women began entering the field of law enforcement, Fischer had very few mentors who recognized her unique needs as a woman in a male-dominated profession. A phenomena that is present for other hierarchies as well – such as race, gender, ethnicity, culture, and class – she appreciates the mentors she developed in her early career were pivotal in the gains she made later in her profession.
The experience made her a passionate proponent of mentoring programs. About 13 years ago, she proposed the creation of a mentoring program in her department – a huge success in the numbers of employees retained, those that transitioned into the department smoothly and officers who completed the training process with more confidence.
“Although this program has waned at MSU, the grassroots it created still linger in the members who now seek ways to mentor others,” she says.
A member of the National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives (NAWLEE) since 2000, Fischer took her passion for mentoring, teaching and coaching to the association to propose and manage a mentoring program for female law enforcement leaders to develop a more marketable and proficient command person. Through that program she has been able to gain mentors for her own and find ways to advance in her own organization, and has also witnessed women rise through the ranks to positions of Chief of Police because of the skills they’ve gained.
“Mentoring is something I don’t think we as women do naturally so it’s something I think we need to champion in our own settings,” she says. “As an attorney, I don’t feel I’m easily mentored and the parallels from policing to the legal profession are clear. Male dominated professions don’t easily see the need to mentor females so we need to encourage that for our colleagues.”
Serving on a NAWLEE committee to create the Mentoring Program, she developed the protocols that still stand today for pairing associates to enhance their current roles.
“What I’ve found is in that mentoring experience, the two have both grown from the experience and networks continue to form,” she says. “This association has grown to become the ‘water cooler for women police executives’ to stand around and grow in their leadership aptitude.”
Elected four times to two-year terms as NAWLEE Treasurer, Fischer implemented many money saving alternatives to provide services to membership; and participated in annual conferences even when she had to support the cost with her own money.
“I believe in the values of the association to mentor, inspire and lead,” she says.
Fischer is a member of the Legal Instructor’s Cadre formed by the Michigan State Police (MSP) and Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards (M-COLES) to share information with other police officers teaching within legal curriculums. She taught for more than 20 years in the Mid-Michigan Police Academy about Michigan Motor Vehicle Law and after attaining her law degree joined the cadre to talk about current opinions and training. Although this committee meets less regularly, members still connect through email and interface with the persons at MSP that create and disseminate the manual used by most police agencies on Michigan Criminal Procedure.
A native of the Grand Rapids area –where her parents, siblings and many other relatives live – Fischer left the area 26 years ago and hopes to return some day. She currently makes her home in Holt, south of Lansing, where she and her partner are avid gardeners. Her large family and extended family are extremely important in her life and she finds ways to spend time with them all.
“It’s a great party when we all come together for Christmas,” she says.
A volunteer for her church with various outreach programs, Fischer has served on the governing board; served as a Lay Eucharist Visitor bringing worship to the homebound; managed blood drives; and provided training on emergency procedures to the church’s Adult Day Center.
In addition to gardening, she enjoys bicycling, walking, snowshoeing, and spending time in activities with friends and family to enrich her own family life. She is also an avid reader.
“After completing my Ph.D., I now get the joy of reading mystery and suspense novels, but have recently learned of an interest in World War II history – so I’m reading novels on key players in that conflict.”
Penny Fisher, a captain with the MSU Police Department, holds master and doctoral degrees from MSU as well as a law degree from Cooley.