Joe Coyle had more than 20 years of experience in the Largo Police Department in Florida. What he did not have was a bachelor’s degree.
“I was a sergeant at the time,” he explained. “I went for a lieutenant position. Our department requires a bachelor’s degree to become a lieutenant. However, they’ll make exceptions for certain circumstances — like if you make lieutenant, you have to sign this paper that says you’ll have your bachelor’s degree within two years of your promotion.”
Coyle just missed out and remained a sergeant. After he got bitter, he got better.
“When I didn’t get lieutenant, it kind of made me mad,” he said. “I thought, ‘[Forget] this.’ In a year-and-a-half, I was able to get my bachelor’s degree. Once I got my bachelor’s degree, I thought, ‘You know what? I like this online thing.'”
So, Coyle kept on going. He graduated from Lamar University in May 2017 with an online Master of Science in Criminal Justice and a 4.0 GPA. Coyle earned both his associate and bachelor’s degrees from St. Petersburg College. He learned about the Lamar University master’s degree program from a colleague who had previously lived in the Beaumont area.
“I told him I wanted to get a master’s degree,” Coyle said. “He said, ‘Hey, I was looking at Lamar University online.’ He told me Lamar was one of the best universities for the price, plus it was highly ranked in criminal justice. I said, ‘Yeah, all right — I’ll try it.’ I applied and got in.”
Coyle also landed the promotion to lieutenant after he earned his bachelor’s degree. He currently serves as the shift commander for midnights and as SWAT commander with the Largo Police Department.
“The master’s degree could help me get promoted even further, like to major or deputy chief,” he said. “I’m starting to get near the end. You can technically retire after 23 years and get 75 percent of your pension. If I max everything out, it’s 95 percent of my pension in only eight more years.”
On Call, Online
Coyle, who started at the department when he was 21 years old, got a taste of the online format during his bachelor’s degree program. Even though he had normal business hours while he attended school, he was on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“If I wanted to open a book or turn on my computer at 2 o’clock in the morning, I could,” Coyle said. “On Sunday mornings I used to go down to the causeway — I live right on the Gulf Coast — and bring my book and read. I would even bring my computer down there and type reports. It worked out well.”
Coyle worked as a detective from 2000 to 2010. He was also on the SWAT team for 19 years. Most of the coursework in the master’s curriculum was more applicable to his current job.
“With lieutenant, you do a lot of administration, paperwork and scheduling,” he said. “Quantitative Methods in Criminology [CRIJ 5331] was one of the first courses I took. When I was reading the book, it was like Greek to me. But, it actually helped me a lot in my job.”
There was a course on criminal behavior that Coyle wishes he would have taken earlier in his career.
“I worked homicide for 10 years,” he said. “I didn’t get a serial killer — obviously those are few and far between — but I’ve had multiple killings where one guy killed his wife, ex-wife, girlfriend, his two kids and then himself in a two-hour period. I’ve worked plenty of homicides, so I found that interesting. I wish I had that course when I was a detective. I learned a lot from it.”
In addition to furthering his education and career, Coyle was able to uphold a family tradition with his accomplishment.
“My mom was a principal of a private Catholic school — she got a master’s,” he said. “My dad is a Vietnam War veteran with a master’s degree in engineering. My sister has a master’s degree. My brother has a master’s degree. I was the last one to get a master’s degree. I wasn’t the black sheep when it came to school, but they all had a master’s, and I had an associate degree.”
Sadly, Coyle’s parents were not there to see him also complete his higher education journey.
“My dad died three years ago,” he said. “My mom died a year ago. My whole plan was to fly her to me to go to graduation, so then she could say all of her kids have master’s degrees. She unfortunately died of breast cancer a year ago. That’s part of the reason I didn’t attend graduation.”
Coyle also has a daughter, his only child, attending the University of South Florida, so the emphasis on education continues with his family. He also helped inspire some family members to go into law enforcement.
“My younger brother became a cop after me,” he said. “Now, he’s an FBI agent. I have a cousin who became a cop after me. I kind of started the law enforcement trend with everybody going into it. I’m one of those guys that it was just what I wanted to do.”
Coyle said law enforcement has changed drastically since he was a rookie.
“You have to adapt,” he said. “When I first started in 1990, a couple of years later you had Rodney King. It’s not that we go around beating people, but nowadays you have to be cognizant that everybody has a camera in their phones. It’s not against the law for people to tape you in a public place. Some officers are like, ‘I can’t deal with it.’ Well, you’re not adapting. You can’t act the same way you did 25 years ago. If you don’t adapt, you’re going to be left out.'”
Coyle said he also realizes the importance of being diligent when it comes to higher education.
“Anybody can do it,” he said. “Just do it, and you are going to be happy when it’s done. Don’t stop. Don’t take a break. Once you take a break, you think, ‘I want to go on vacation now.’ I went on vacation and brought a laptop with me on a week-long cruise because I had a quiz. You can’t take a break. If you’re going to do it, go all the way through it.”
Learn more about the Lamar University online Master of Science in Criminal Justice program.
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