Skip to main content

University-community collaboration helps grow local police departments, creating safer communities

How an IU Northwest alumnus and professor’s partnership is advancing the region

Community Apr 23, 2024

A man and two women stand smiling outside a building. (Left-to-right): Griffith Police Chief Greg Mance, police officer Cynthia Torres and Center of Urban and Regional Excellence Director, Ellen Szarleta. Cynthia Torres had a lifelong dream of becoming a police officer, but she thought it was out of her reach.

“I honestly thought I never could,” she said. “I thought people were going to laugh or think it was a joke.”

After working as a health care receptionist for five years, she attended retirement parties for her colleagues and found herself returning to her dream.

“I remember this moment, sitting there thinking ‘I don’t want to retire here.’ I loved my job, but this was not my thing.”

As she began to explore what it would take for her to make the career change, she found a Police Candidate Training event on Facebook, offered by Indiana University Northwest’s Center for Urban and Regional Excellence (CURE), the Griffith Police Department and Crossroads YMCA.

She took a leap of faith and decided to participate in the training. And shortly after, she started reporting to work with a badge and uniform. She has been part of the Griffith PD for over two years now.

“I give the workshop credit for my being hired,” Torres said, who felt her training instructors took interest in her drive and determination to become an officer.

She has since participated as a training instructor and found that female recruits gravitate toward her with questions about combining police work with motherhood. As a single parent of two, Torres gladly talks to them about how she’s managed childcare with police shifts, hoping she’s making it possible for more women to see a future in police work.

Where it all began

Griffith’s Police Chief Greg Mance spearheaded the idea for the training in 2015. He approached Ellen Szarleta, Director of CURE, who had also been one of his professors at IU Northwest. Mance studied criminal justice as an undergraduate student, later earning a master’s degree in public affairs – both from IU Northwest.

When he became chief in 2013, one of the first things he was tasked with was recruiting and hiring new officers. A man and women talk inside. Griffith police officer Cynthia Torres (left) and Chief Greg Mance (right) talk inside the Griffith Police Station.

“Especially alarming to me was that I didn’t have many females or minorities applying,” he said. Among those who did, he felt that many were qualified but unprepared for Indiana’s written and physical tests, which had to be passed for a candidate to make it to the interview stage.

“I think every chief wants a department to reflect its community,” Mance said. “It makes better bonds and partnerships possible.”

Mance and Szarleta envisioned a program that would provide candidates with test-taking strategies for the written exam, job interview tips and mock interviews. The Crossroads YMCA developed a fitness portion of the training that included giving candidates a plan to build strength and endurance over two or three months and a free, three-month membership to help them get there.

Surveying success

Szarleta is currently in the process of surveying everyone who has participated in the trainings over the past nine years to find out how they fared. Mance views the training programs as a success for his department, having hired three people who participated in the workshop — a significant number for a department with low turnover.

Mance also helped Griffith become the first police department in Indiana to incorporate social workers into its ranks, creating a model that has been emulated around the state and across the country.

“They take a load off the department,” he said. When calls related to mental health crises, addiction, or other situations that could be helped by a connection to social services come in, “they (social workers) step in and help navigate the complicated systems that exist. We’ve seen a reduction in crime and a reduction in calls for service because of this program.”

While a student at IU Northwest, Mance’s objective was to become a detective, but thanks to both of his degree programs at IU Northwest, he was able to envision a wider view of police work.

“I wanted to see the profession go further and then my department go further,” he said. “It gave me the courage and desire to want to elevate my department and try and become chief. When the opportunity came up, I was fortunate enough to get it and then really apply what I had been taught as I earned my degrees.”

For Szarleta, seeing what Mance has accomplished throughout his career, especially as police chief, has been rewarding. Two women sit talking in a room. CURE Director Ellen Szarleta and Griffith Police Officer Cynthia Torres chat inside the Griffith Police Station.

“In our public affairs program, we are very intentional about looking at the socio-economic issues in our community,” she said. “They are complex, and you have to look at them from different perspectives — the legislative perspective, the law enforcement perspective, an economic perspective. I think that provides us with the ability to think outside the box and recognize that if you are going to solve some of these problems, you have to have collaborative relationships across disciplines and areas of expertise.

“The best part of my job is seeing the experience students have had… the ways their education has changed their perspective in a positive way about their role in their community. Then you see what they can accomplish, what they can do — it’s phenomenal.”

It’s certainly had a ripple effect on Torres, who still feels starstruck about her career.

“I promise you I’m still falling in love with everything about it. I’m very happy to be here, especially in Griffith. I think it is my place,” Torres said.

“It’s a lot of work, but it’s what I’ve always wanted… I love helping people. That’s what I longed for. I love being there in their time of need and their worst times and helping them hold that glisten of hope. That’s my thing.”

IU 2030: Service to our State and Beyond

IU Northwest will improve the lives of the people and economic vitality of Northwest Indiana and beyond by fostering and strengthening collaborative relationships that promote, build and sustain the well-being of the campus and our communities.

IU 2030: Student Success and Opportunity
IU Northwest will ensure the long-term success of all students while remaining grounded in our unique identity as an Hispanic-Serving Institution and as a Minority-Serving Institution, with a commitment to meeting the needs of our entire student body.

IU 2030: Transformative Research and Creativity 

IU Northwest will engage in high-impact research and creative activity, advance knowledge, and improve the lives of people in Indiana and beyond.

More stories

IU Northwest  
Faith Smith (right) and her mother.
IU Northwest