Miami University students and community members stopped by the Harry T. Wilks Conference Center on Miami’s Hamilton campus Tuesday evening to hear a former Hamilton police officer share how constant education and determination earned her a place on the bench of the highest court in the state of Ohio.
Ohio Supreme Court Justice Sharon Kennedy recounted her journey from a Cincinnati high school student to Hamilton police officer, to law school and county courts to ultimately her position as the ninth female justice in the Ohio Supreme Court during a lecture titled, Pathways in Criminal Justice, hosted by Miami’s Department of Justice and Community Studies.
Robert Fischer, who teaches criminal defense at Miami University Hamilton, said that their goal was to teach the undergraduate students not only about the justice system and about the importance of education, “but that you need to continue to educate yourself.”
“She is a student every day,” he said.
“When I was in high school, I really thought no further than being a police officer,” Kennedy said. After her high school general law teacher stopped her and told her that her obvious passion for law meant she should look further and higher than law enforcement to an actual law career, she still felt that her blue-collar background prevented her from reaching that high.
“He assured me, whatever I wanted to achieve, I could,” she said. With the help of many mentors along the way and her mother’s fears notwithstanding, she fulfilled her childhood dream of becoming a police officer and now, has the job that she says she wants to keep doing for her lifetime.
Kennedy’s lecture focused on how she came to her position as one of Ohio’s highest justices, encouraging the students to not limit themselves because of their family situations, and to constantly educate themselves through their experiences and careers throughout their lives. But she touched on experiences she had, incidents as a police officer and as a judge on the bench, that reflect larger issues in Ohio’s communities and nationally.
She shared two stories where as a young police officer, she feared for her life and was either forced to use violence or came near to taking a life, once when she responded to a bar fight and was forced to use her nightstick to defend her self, and once when she nearly shot a young boy who pointed a gun at her car.
“He was just yukking it up with his friends,” she said. While waiting at a red light in her personal car, the boy pointed a double-barrel shotgun out his car window at the back of her car.
“You have options, and they happen very quickly,” Kennedy said, adding the options that flowed through her head were either speed forward, running a red light and risking an accident, sitting there and praying he doesn’t shoot, or shifting her car to park, rolling out of the car and drawing her weapon. “I chose option three,” she said.
After giving commands, he dropped the weapon, which turned out not to be loaded. “It would have been a justified shooting, but I would have killed a young man who could not have killed me, but I did not know it in the moment,” she said.
Kennedy said she felt that communication between the law enforcement and their communities, with both sides making the effort to develop real relationships, could help prevent tragedies like what occurred in 2014 in Ferguson, or in Beavercreek, from happening again, and could also help pick up the pieces after. “The immediacy of the situation these days is a huge challenge, because if you’ve already based judgments on the actions, it’s harder to have that honest conversation,” she said.
Kennedy also touched on the issue of mental health in many criminal cases, saying: “You can’t fix the symptom, which is criminal activity, without fixing the problem, which is mental health.”
She addressed the allegation that elected judges defending the law could be seen as a contradiction.
“You and I believe in the same system of government…as a judge, my role is limited…my sole role as a judge is to uphold the law,” she said.
But in all, continual learning was the main theme of the night.
“You have an obligation to maintain what I call fit: mentally, emotional, physically, intellectually,” she said. “It’s your responsibility to education yourselves and to be aware.”