An Unlikely Scholar
Iraq War veteran and law professor Christopher Cooper’s path to the academy has been anything but traditional.
By Cassie Chew
The only outward sign that Dr. Christopher Cooper is sick is a small round patch behind his right ear. It looks like a bandage you might put on after being nicked by a razor.
The patch contains medicine that keeps Cooper from getting dizzy. The assistant professor of criminal justice at St. Xavier University, began experiencing dizziness and a host of other physical ailments two years ago, after sustaining injuries while serving in Iraq.
In February 2004, Cooper left the small suburban Chicago university to begin training at Fort Stewart, a U.S. Army base in Southeast Georgia. A few months later, he was deployed to Baqubah, a city just northeast of Baghdad that in June 2004 was the site of some of the heaviest fighting between U.S. forces and insurgent groups. It was in Baqubah that Cooper was injured.
“I got thrown from a Humvee and dragged,” he says. He was flown to Germany, where he had an operation on his right leg.
Since returning to the United States, Cooper has been plagued by a number of recurring illnesses.
“I’m sick. … I’m always sick. … but I’m not contagious,” he says.
From all outward appearances, Cooper looks well. But under the surface, he says he suffers from viral and sinus infections, gets migraine headaches, blisters on his tongue and has a condition that requires him to make frequent trips to the restroom.
“I have had [numerous] surgeries and am on about eight medications,” he says. “[With] the type of illness I have, I don’t look sick. People look at me and say ‘Come on Chris, who are you kidding?’ I could have a good day [today], and tomorrow I can be as sick as a dog.”
Iraq isn’t the first time Cooper has taken up arms to protect others. A native of Brooklyn, he patrolled the streets of New York City and Washington, D.C., as a police officer. He was living and working in Washington on Sept. 11, 2001. After watching the news footage of the terrorist attacks, he decided to drive all night to the World Trade Center in New York to help search for survivors.
Before that, Cooper spent seven years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He says memories of the camaraderie of military life began to resurface during the initial days of the United States occupation in Iraq.
“It was a great life. I miss it. Sometimes I wish I still was a part of it,” he says. Those memories were the catalyst for his decision to volunteer for the National Guard reserves. He didn’t plan, however, to ever don combat gear again. He signed up to become a Marine Corps lawyer, hoping to defend court-martialed Marines.
A criminal defense attorney, Cooper says, “I actually had been granted a commission to become a military lawyer, but after he saw my record, the commander decided to send me to Iraq as an infantry soldier.”
An Alternate Route to the AcademyCooper came into his current career as an unlikely scholar.
At 13, he lied about his age to land jobs loading liquor bottles in warehouses and unloading packages from airplanes at John F. Kennedy Airport. He brought the money home to his mother.
“I never went [to high school],” he says. “It was overcrowded and I didn’t feel like it was productive.”
At 17, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and earned his GED. After finishing the initial three-year commitment, he re-enlisted for another three-year tour in the reserves and enrolled at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Cooper earned a bachelor’s degree in government and public administration, then joined the New York City Police Department. But he wasn’t yet done with education.
“I got interested in the psychology of policing and how to better police communities,” he says.
After moving to the nation’s capital, Cooper decided to study law at the University of the District of Columbia, eventually earning his juris doctorate from the New England School of Law in Boston. Although he wanted to continue his education, he wasn’t ready to give up his police work in the District, so he chose to pursue a doctorate at American University.
“I wanted to go to a city with a reputation of being tough,” Cooper says. “I was known as an aggressive cop.” He says his fellow police officers didn’t know what to make of him.
“When you are an educated cop, they don’t know how to take you. I got criticized. I was seen as different. But I had been in the Marine Corps, so it wasn’t like I had lived in a glass house,” Cooper says. Although he liked police work, Cooper says he never planned to be a career cop.
After graduating from American, he went to the University of Denmark in Copenhagen on a Fulbright postdoctoral professorship. St. Xavier then approached him about joining its sociology, anthropology and criminal justice department. He has taught there since 1997.
“I’m glad they called me … It’s been a good nine years,” he says.
Cooper primarily teaches torts, criminal law and law enforcement to undergraduates. He has published 26 articles in social science and law journals, including research on how police apply Fourth Amendment principles differently to Blacks than to Whites.
“He is clearly one of the most published and accomplished professors,” says Dr. Christopher I. Chalokwu, a St. Xavier professor of chemistry who has served as the university’s vice chancellor for academic affairs. “He not only has a Ph.D., he has a J.D. He is very accomplished. He had done quite a lot of research.
I am glad the university values his work.”
Cooper, a member of the National Black Police Association, created a center for conflict resolution at the university and set up a mediation center at a state courthouse near campus. Juvenile offenders and their victims use the center to discuss and resolve their problems.
“It was very successful,” says Steve Sherwin, a retired police officer who worked with Cooper at the mediation center. “It got people to learn how to talk about these issues and [kids] didn’t get a court record. “I think that there is so much more that Dr. Cooper could do if he could get the rest of the courts on board. He has got a good heart and he cares about people,” says Sherwin, who is also an adjunct criminal justice professor at Lewis University in nearby Romeoville, Ill.
Conflicts ContinueWhen Cooper returned to St. Xavier in the fall of 2005, he hoped to get right back into the classroom. But he says the university seemed unwilling to make accommodations that would allow him to continue teaching while recovering from his injuries and illnesses.
“I am a lot better now, but at the time I needed to be on one floor,” Cooper says. He ended up asking the university to put him in a non-teaching position.
“I wanted to teach, but I understand it from the student’s perspective,” he says. “Students should expect that the university does something with me other than have me in a classroom.”
Worried about tenure, Cooper filed a lawsuit against the university in November 2005. But true to his training in conflict resolution, he dropped the lawsuit in October and settled the case with St. Xavier. As part of the settlement, Cooper isn’t allowed to discuss the terms of the agreement, but he says it’s “a really good settlement for me.” He’s on sabbatical this school year.
Cooper suspects his respiratory problems are the combined result of the toxic chemicals he was exposed to fighting roadside bombings in Iraq and the substances he may have inhaled as a rescue volunteer at the World Trade Center.
“I have three physicians, and one believes that I will get cured,” he says. “He thinks that my immune system could return to normal.”
Although his illnesses have caused him to restructure much of his life, they aren’t stopping him from taking on new challenges. In addition to his academic research, Cooper is back in the courtroom arguing federal civil rights cases.
“I am working on nine,” he says.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com
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