Not too many of Adam Braskich's classmates at Harvard Law School this fall will have spent an afternoon quite like this.
On a sweltering day inside a South Baltimore apartment, he stood over the body of an elderly man that was discovered by a friend. Trying to discern the man's identity and find his family, the officer and a medic picked through his possessions, looking for anything that might help.
Another medic rushed out, overcome by the stench.
Braskich, a 26-year-old native of Illinois who double-majored in criminal justice and philosophy at the University of Maryland, College Park, said he's enjoyed the past three years in the city's diverse neighborhoods, getting to know residents and drug dealers alike.
But after being accepted into the prestigious law school, he thinks he can make a bigger difference returning with a law degree and working as a prosecutor.
"I realized fairly early on that I'd probably make a better prosecutor than a police officer," he said on a recent afternoon. "I'm better at spotting logical fallacies than guns concealed in waistbands."
Of the 2,947 police officers on the city force, 466 hold degrees from four-year colleges. An additional 32 have masters degrees and two have doctorates. Just two police officers have law degrees. City officers with college degrees get a bump in pay.
Baltimore police commissioners past and present have vowed to hire in the "spirit of service, not adventure," and the department's chief spokesman, Anthony Guglielmi, said "we're finding that more and more academy recruits and trainees have a four-year degree."
But city police in 2009, citing budget constraints, ended a tuition reimbursement program that had helped hundreds of officers take college courses.
Even at Harvard Law, not all students come up through the Ivy leagues and private prep schools. Josh Rubenstein, Harvard's assistant dean and chief admissions officer, said they're "looking to build a really talented and diverse class."
Rubenstein said the school looks at applicants' geographic location and real life practice in the world of law. Police officers interpret and enforce the law every day. "There is no real hierarchy of experience," the admissions director. "We think there is incredible value in getting people with a range of experience."
The quest for higher education is becoming an important asset for police agencies. Gone are the days when high level administrative positions are awarded to those without college backgrounds, so officers who want to advance need to pursue more education.
According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, it is increasingly rare to see a candidate for police chief without a college degree. "It is more typical to see a master's degree," Kim Kohlhepp, manager of the group's career development office.
Baltimore's police commissioner, Frederick H. Bealefeld, became the city's top cop with a high school degree, though he is currently enrolled in a criminal justice program at the University of Maryland University College.
Unlike other patrol officers typically assigned to districts, Braskich got to work in virtually every area of the city, as part of a shift covering for officers attending monthly training sessions. He worked tough neighborhoods, such as Park Heights, and the relatively quiet spots around Camden Yards.
But it was a study break that put him in his most perilous spot.
One day in December 2009, taking a walk to a Hampden drugstore the day before his LSAT exam, he saw two suspicious-looking men outside a liquor store on Falls Road. "They looked like they were casing the place," Braskich said. "Next thing I know, on come the ski masks, and they pulled guns out of their waistbands."
With no radio to call for help and no time to get on the phone, Braskich ran across the street and opened fire on the two men from outside the store. One of the men was wounded, and Braskich chased down the other as he fled.
"It was a significant experience for me," Braskich said, his words slowing. "There's nothing to compare it to, before or since. It was a really eye-opening experience to learn just how easy it was to shatter somebody's life.
"I wish often that there could have been a way for me to resolve the situation without harming anyone, but I'm reassured that I can't come up with what that would have been."
Braskich said the biggest misconception of police work lies in the workload of patrol officers, who are inundated with calls that are often trivial in nature but suck up valuable time.
Staffing levels can mean that Braskich may not see much of his designated area in a given shift, covering for other officers or being detailed to events. The slower pace of his Southern District assignment, where he stood over the body, has afforded him more time in neighborhoods.
But given his new adventure at Harvard, his bosses are letting him spend three weeks embedded with the homicide unit.
"We hope he uses that experience to become a better prosecutor," said department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi. "Since he expressed an interest in returning back to Baltimore, having that level of insight into how homicide cases and complex investigations are handled will make him an even stronger partner."
Braskich affirmed that he'd like to come back to Baltimore after law school. At a luncheon for admitted students at Harvard, he said one professor remarked that he couldn't understand why all the school's graduates seem to move to four or five cities.
"He said, 'What about Atlanta? What about Memphis?'" Braskich said. "I said, 'What about Baltimore?"