Former Kearney police officer Harshbarger brings real-world experience to UNK classrooms

Following a 24-year career with the Kearney Police Department, Kyle Harshbarger has joined the University of Nebraska at Kearney Department of Criminal Justice as a full-time lecturer. (Photo by Corbey R. Dorsey, UNK Communications)
Following a 24-year career with Kearney Police Department, Kyle Harshbarger joined the University of Nebraska at Kearney Department of Criminal Justice as a full-time lecturer. (Photo by Corbey R. Dorsey, UNK Communications)

By TYLER ELLYSON
UNK Communications

KEARNEY – When a 22-year-old man armed with a sawed-off shotgun took numerous customers and employees hostage inside a downtown Kearney bank, Kyle Harshbarger was the commander in charge of a local SWAT team that responded to the incident.

After 2 1/2 hours of negotiations, the suspect surrendered to police and nobody was injured during the ordeal.

Four years later, Harshbarger was head of criminal investigations for Kearney Police Department when two men wearing dark clothes and white hard hats robbed a credit union with a starter pistol and fled the scene. A monthslong investigation tracked the men to Chicago, where they were apprehended. The getaway driver was also charged.

“It was an extremely thorough and complete investigation where one lead led to another,” Kearney Police Capt. Mike Kirkwood told the Kearney Hub newspaper following the arrests.

That’s the type of real-world experience Harshbarger brings to the University of Nebraska at Kearney’s Department of Criminal Justice.

After a 24-year career with Kearney Police Department, the former sergeant turned in his badge a few months ago to accept a full-time lecturer position with UNK. The Kearney native and UNK graduate said the timing “seemed right” to make the transition from catching criminals to educating students.

“I can’t really say there was an epiphany moment,” he said. “I know that I was at the stage in my career as a police officer that I was kicking around whether I was going to do that for another 15 years.”

Harshbarger was plenty familiar with UNK, where he served as a part-time adjunct instructor for 13 years, teaching one or two courses a semester. His wife Dena is an assistant professor in UNK’s Department of Teacher Education.

When longtime criminal justice professor Kurt Siedschlaw retired in August, Harshbarger was an obvious choice to step into the full-time role.

“Kyle is an outstanding teacher who brings years of practical experience to the classroom,” said Julie Campbell, chair of the criminal justice department. “Students consistently comment that his ability to relate the course concepts to real-world experiences brings the material to life for them.”

That experience includes 13 years on the SWAT unit and six years leading Kearney Police Department’s criminal investigations, positions that required advanced training and education. He also conducted active violence training for area businesses and schools and was a certified firearms instructor.

Harshbarger said his decision to leave law enforcement hasn’t completely sunk in yet, but he’s not second-guessing it.

“I’m thankful for the experiences that I got at the police department, and I’m thankful that I can draw on those experiences and my education and bring them here,” he said.

The 47-year-old knows his background can be beneficial for UNK students looking at careers in law enforcement. He teaches introduction to criminal justice, criminal investigations, police management and forensics courses and will help students line up internships with various agencies.

Harshbarger, who worked at the Buffalo County Detention Center while attending UNK, said his goal is to ensure students are prepared for their future careers, whether they’re looking at law enforcement, corrections, probation or any other area of criminal justice.

One of the strengths of UNK’s program, he said, is the diversity among instructors.

“You have a lot of different experiences here,” he said. “I think that’s a good draw. You don’t want five ex-police officers. You want people with different experiences, because not everybody is going to be a police officer.”

For Harshbarger, accepting a full-time position at UNK brings him full circle. He always wanted to be a police officer, but he comes from a family of educators and initially pursued that major in college before switching to criminal justice.

“I really enjoy being a teacher,” Harshbarger said. “I feel like I’ve accomplished a goal just being here.”

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