By Victoria Bourne

Junior Kaylen Otey has wanted a career in law enforcement for as long as she can remember.

“I have photos from when I was a kid on a police motorcycle and (sitting inside) police cars,” said Otey, an Old Dominion University criminal justice major from Roanoke, Virginia. She likes the idea of a job that’s different from day to day, and she’s inspired by members of her family who have served in the military and as first responders. 

“I just always found it interesting” said Otey, who is minoring in cybercrime and aspires to become an FBI special agent after serving as a uniformed police officer. Her experience with ODU’s Police Department (ODUPD) has reinforced her career goals, she said. Over the past two years, she has worked as the supervisor for ODUPD’s cadet program. 

“I love working there,” said Otey, a graduate of the department’s inaugural Citizen/Student Police Academy. “I've gotten to know ODUPD and they're amazing. I think one of the things that makes me want to work in law enforcement is the bond, the family that you have. And I definitely see that at ODUPD.”

women sitting in a room

Kaylen Otey, president and founder of the Pre-Law Enforcement Association.

But other than ODUPD, Otey said she noticed there were few internship opportunities for criminal justice majors on campus. Inspired by her experience helping reactivate a student group called Pre-Law Association, Otey wanted to create a new group that catered more to the law enforcement side of the criminal justice equation. She founded the Pre-Law Enforcement Association (PLEA) in September. 

“I got this one up and running to give criminal justice students a safe space,” said Otey, who is also PLEA’s president. “With everything going on in law enforcement now, I noticed that a lot of people who are interested in going into law enforcement don't say it as much,” adding that she believes their reticence is a reaction to the very public issues surrounding policing and police accountability.

“PLEA is here to guide students onto the right path to become great leaders and great officers,” she said.

PLEA, which has roughly 50 members, offers opportunities to learn and network, Otey said. Over the fall semester PLEA hosted speakers from various law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI, as well as mystery movie watch parties and a public speaking workshop. The group also organized field trips to observe ODUPD physical agility tests and visit the Norfolk Police Department police academy. 

The association enables like-minded students to share their knowledge and experiences, both on and off-campus, according to Phil Mann, senior lecturer in ODU’s Department of Sociology & Criminal Justice. “As with any student-led organization,” he added. “PLEA likewise offers opportunities for members to gain leadership, organizational and interpersonal skills that translate well in furthering their careers.”

“I've gotten to know ODUPD and they're amazing. I think one of the things that makes me want to work in law enforcement is the bond, the family that you have. And I definitely see that at ODUPD.” - Kaylen Otey

As part of a collaborative Halloween event with the Chinese Culture & Language Club and Japanese & American Student Association, Otey and PLEA members devised a mini-mock crime scene that started with a murder mystery. Roughly 30 participants, working in groups of four or five, were given a list of suspects and some clues, such as fingerprints on a window. The crime scene included a bloodied murder weapon and a staged dead body wrapped in a trash bag. They had to determine motive and identify the killer.    

"They loved it,” Otey said. “They had a good experience." It was also a test-run for her and PLEA’s executive board as they plan a future, more extensive event later this year.

Old Dominion University hosts more than 300 student organizations. They are entirely student-led and must register with and be approved by Student Engagement and Traditions. New groups must also receive approval from the Student Government Association (SGA) Administrative Affairs Committee. The group must then re-register annually.

Last summer, Otey approached Tammera “Tammey” Nielsen to be PLEA’s faculty advisor. 

"I didn't have to do anything except say yes and sign some paperwork,” said Nielsen, an academic advisor and program manager for the Interdisciplinary Studies Program in the Batten College of Arts & Letters. “(Kaylen) has put all of it together, and it's just been really impressive. I don't know where she finds the time because she's an excellent student as well." 

Otey has worked hard to invite law enforcement professionals to speak at PLEA meetings, Nielsen said, which could lead to more opportunities for students to apply for internships with participating agencies. 

Lectures are great, Nielsen said, but getting students actively involved and participating in something like last fall’s mini-mock crime scene is a better way to capture their interest.  "That's something that they're going to go and tell somebody else about," Nielsen said.   

Otey recruited Anna Friend, a senior criminal justice major who aspires to be a forensic scientist - more specifically, a DNA analyst for the FBI - to be vice president of PLEA while both were attending ODUPD’s Citizen/Student Police Academy. 

woman in classroom

Anna Friend, a senior criminal justice major, is PLEA's vice president.

"I honestly did not realize how many criminal justice students there were," said Friend, noting prior to joining PLEA she tended to see the same faces in her classes. The community is larger than she thought, she said.

Friend, who is from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, by way of Lynchburg, Virginia, said she has experienced a ripple effect of connectivity as a member of PLEA. 

"When I first started, I wasn't very connected to anybody,” she said. “In the short while that I have been connected in the organization, I've connected with people in the FBI, in other police departments; I've gotten to tour the Norfolk Police Department and be able to build relationships with those people. So, there's just so many great opportunities in this organization to be able to branch out and think about other avenues that you might not have thought about."

Friend wants to reinforce to potential members that PLEA is not just an organization for up-and-coming police officers. "We're people who are wanting to make connections, or help other students make connections, with the agencies or the departments that they want to go into, whether that be the science side of it, like me, or criminal law - being a lawyer or police officer."

Otey said this semester she is working to build PLEA’s membership and is gearing up for more events, such as fingerprinting and forensics workshops, culminating in another mock investigation later this year. Plans for that are still a work in progress, she said, but she hopes it’ll take participants from the crime scene to the court room. 

“I’m not blind to the fact of the injustices in law enforcement, but I really believe that if you want to see change, you have to be the change.” Otey said. “I hope to start to accomplish this through PLEA because good leaders make great leaders.”

Check out the Pre-Law Enforcement Association on Instagram @plea_odu or email to learn more.