Brian Mayer is no stranger to crime.
In the small, rural Oklahoma town of Vinita where Mayer lives, violence and eccentric behavior are an almost daily occurrence, and a simple trip to Walmart might mean seeing more than one can handle.
Vinita, population 5,743, is a mental health-centered community, home to institutions like Grand Lake Mental Health Center and Northeast Oklahoma Correctional Center. It’s also home to the Oklahoma Forensic Center, a 200-bed, state-run facility that houses people who have been found incompetent to stand trial or deemed not guilty by reason of insanity, otherwise known as the criminally insane.
Mayer said of the 200 beds at Oklahoma Forensic Center, more than half are reserved for patients who will be there permanently. With fewer than 100 beds available for incoming patients, a person with a psychiatric issue who has committed a crime may wait months in the county jail before getting a bed.
“We’re kind of at a wall,” he said. “Certainly a county jail is not the place to wait for an assessment. We just don’t have the forensic mental health capacity we need in Oklahoma.”
Mayer realized he was learning less about his volunteer deputy role and more about the people around him.
Although he never had any intention of making a career out of fighting crime, the OU College of Liberal Studies (now PACS) Winter 2016 banner carrier decided to get a master’s degree in criminal justice after signing up as volunteer sheriff’s deputy in his community.
“The investment business I was working for at the time was across the street from the court house,” he said. “I was aware they needed volunteers, so I signed up and went through the training.”
Mayer said the training wasn’t as informative as he had hoped, and he was left with more questions than answers. He was more than eager to advance his understanding of the criminal justice field.
“Even after all this training, I still really didn’t know anything,” he said. “It compelled me to better understand the criminal justice system and criminology. I thought, what better way than going to school and getting my master’s degree?”
Once immersed in the program, Mayer realized he was learning less about his volunteer deputy role and more about the people around him.
“Living in a mental health community, especially a rural area, you get to see how that spillover from mental health affects criminal justice,” he said. “It’s a huge plague on society, especially where I live.”
Those daily experiences, along with hearing a firsthand account from a human trafficking victim, are what led Mayer to do his thesis research in the areas of sex offenders with sexual disorders and human trafficking, specifically labor trafficking. While sex trafficking is talked about more in mainstream news, Mayer said about 99.9 percent of human trafficking is labor related.
“When I heard that victim’s story, it was one of the most horrendous things I’d heard in my entire life,” he said. “I have a unique perspective on degrees of suffering. The sheer terror of deportation outweighs any suffering. You can’t help but want to help these people.
“When I started my research, I thought maybe resources weren’t being put into the right area,” he added. “Maybe it needs to be more victim-focused. That was important to me.”
Mayer said one thing he learned from his research is that Oklahoma has very little data available in these areas.
“There’s nowhere to even begin,” he said. “As far as evidence-based programs, we really don’t have an adequate statewide record keeping system where information can be shared.”
Mayer said the accessibility and direct guidance of his professors, coupled with the availability of experts in the criminal justice field, was invaluable while working toward his master’s degree. He said it wasn’t uncommon for him to call the author of a book or visit a university to delve deeper into what he was studying.
“The fact that I could go to the core of where something originated is a testament to the quality of the program. Their genuine desire to educate and share ideas is a great strength for advancement in criminology and criminal justice.”
If he had questions about a specific area, he felt comfortable personally contacting a source rather than relying on data that may be outdated.
“I believe in going as close to the source as you can,” he said. “Why not call the person directly?”
Mayer said he probably called half a dozen professors to ask questions and get information he couldn’t find anywhere else. He said of all the instructors he had, two made the greatest impact—Dr. Todd Wuestewald and Dr. Roksana Alavi.
“The fact that I could go to the core of where something originated is a testament to the quality of the program,” he said. “Their genuine desire to educate and share ideas is a great strength for advancement in criminology and criminal justice.”
Mayer said going into the criminal justice program knowing he was not going to be a law enforcement officer freed him up to investigate in some more offbeat, experimental areas.
“So many other people already knew where their degree was going to lead,” he said. “I was allowed a little more freedom to explore and make bold statements.”
Mayer said not only did he gain academic and practical knowledge in his master’s program, he got a better look at the criminal justice process as a whole.
Since graduating, Mayer has divested away from his investment career. He’s been conducting independent research and even debated starting a Ph.D. program in criminal justice. Although he’s been accepted into a number of Ph.D. programs, Mayer, 40, said he’s now leaning toward finding a job with an institution that will allow him to continue his research in human trafficking and sex offenders.
Did all this learning help him in his volunteer sheriff duties? Not really, he said.
But he did get some things he didn’t expect.
“I thought it was going to do me all this good. It really didn’t, but it did give me a better understanding of where the flaw is,” he said.
He said earning a master’s degree also further fueled his desire for lifelong learning.
“I will carry these concepts with me into future endeavors,” he said. “If anything, it renewed my craving to learn new things. I certainly feel more rewarded in my daily walk in life.”