As a young police officer in the mid-1980s, James Snipes learned something from students – that he wanted to return to school himself.
So, when the opportunity arose more than a decade later, he did just that, becoming a criminal justice teacher in the Cedar Hill School District. Now, 22 years later, Snipes is retiring after being an influence on many youngsters.
“I was a school resource officer for the Arlington ISD, and as such I found myself in front of many classrooms throughout the district teaching a myriad of safety and law enforcement type lessons,” said Snipes, 65. “I thoroughly enjoyed the work and always thought that schools should offer full-time criminal justice courses. I told myself if the opportunity ever arose I would take advantage of it. That opportunity arose through CHISD in early September 1998, and I jumped on it quickly and have never regretted it.”
Snipes worked double duty as a teacher and police officer for several years after joining the Cedar Hill ISD, working alongside former Cedar Hill Police Chief Steve Campbell. When Campbell became Midlothian’s chief, he asked Snipes to join him. He worked as needed on patrol and as the public information officer until retiring from police work in 2008.
Worked as an undercover police officer
Also during his time in Arlington he worked undercover. And yes, his life was in danger at times.
“You never knew if you had been discovered, and you sometimes worked alone. And, although vehicular pursuits look exciting and maybe even glamorous on social media or television, they are dangerous,” Snipes said. “When the moment is actually happening, there is no time for fear, just action. The fear comes later with the crash from the adrenaline rush.”
Snipes tries his best to keep up with his former students, largely through social media. He figures more than 100 of them have gone on to careers in the criminal justice field.
“Before his class I had no idea how the criminal justice system worked, or really what the purpose of law enforcement was. He set me on a path that helped lay a great base for my career as a prosecutor,” said Jessica Trevizo, a 2005 Cedar Hill High graduate and now a prosecutor in Dallas County.
Dr. Justin Fairless, a 2000 Cedar Hill High graduate, is an emergency room physician at Texas Health Systems and a tactical physician at Center for Tactical Medicine (he is the physician for the SWAT Team) and a former EMT. He also said Snipes’ teaching led him to his current career.
“I was always interested in medicine, but not interested in legal and criminal matters until I took Mr. Snipes’ criminal justice studies class,” Fairless said. “I really became interested in forensic science as a result.
“Mr. Snipes’ class was a unique class because we did things outside the normal routine of classwork. The mock trial that we did was enjoyable.”
Former students use what they learned
Brandon Smith, a 2003 Cedar Hill graduate, is now using what he learned from Snipes in his career as a teacher with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in Austin.
“I took every class I could from him. To this day I credit my career choices on his influence,” Smith said. “I went to Sam Houston State University because he went there and always promoted how great their CJ program was. I had my eyes open to the current agency at which I’ve made a 10-year career with his lessons and field trips to Huntsville.”
Snipes sentimentally reflected on rewards he received from students as well.
“My pride swells when I hear of my students’ successes. I have students who have been named Officer of the Year, have actually and directly saved lives, and have participated in solving well-known cases,” he said.
While he’s no longer a police officer, Snipes thinks often of the officers doing their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Police work has always been a mixture of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t – stuck between a rock and a hard spot’ job. Only today, the rock is bigger and the hard part is harder,” he said. “Local police are trying to balance a response that does not violate civil rights, that does not violate their oath of office and complies with federal, state, county and city level directives that are often in conflict with each other.”
He wants citizens to remember that officers are human beings and citizens also.
“Their ranks are drawn from the community in which they serve, and as such, are a reflection of the community,” he said. “And, as citizens, officers are entitled to the exact same rights that all citizens enjoy.”
Wishing final class well
As his career winds down, Snipes wishes he could bid farewell to his Class of 2020 students in person. Because of the coronavirus, however, he cannot.
“I think that most of all I will miss being part of something that is bigger than ourselves and playing a pivotal role in shaping, supporting and guiding our scholars into adults who will contribute positively to society,” he said.
“Mr. Snipes is someone that, when he speaks, people listen. You can tell his experience and years in the district have helped him and promoted the student-first mentality,” Cedar Hill High School Principal Jason Miller said. “He is leaving a legacy at Cedar Hill High School.”
And though he’s retiring, Snipes continues to have the best interest of his former students at heart. He still offers advice as they enter their respective careers.
“Don’t ignore the different levels of law enforcement careers. Keep federal and state agencies in mind when you search,” he said. “Choose an agency with stringent hiring criteria. You are more likely to be trained, supplied, supported, equipped and paid well.
“Be patient in your search. It sometimes takes a long time to find the right fit. Once hired, train well, ignore the haters and seek help when you or your family needs it.”