A sense of service

  • February 11, 2014
A sense of service

Michael Masters was one of the first cohort of Gates Cambridge Scholars. He now heads Cook County's Department of Homeland Security.

Michael Masters‘ brief covers everything from squirrels chewing through power cables and causing power outages to tornados, flooding and acts of terrorism. As the Executive Director of the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management for Cook County (DHSEM), the US’ second biggest county, he says his role is about preparing for and keeping up to date with developments over the whole gamut of man-made and natural hazards we face in the 21st century.

In fact, he says, preparing for the aftermath of a tornado involves many of the same skill sets as responding to a terrorist event. “The same sort of response – addressing collapsed buildings, urban search and rescue and excavation – are often required from the emergency services, and the treatment of victims is quite similar,” he says.

When he joined the DHSEM in 2011 it was in crisis after coming under investigation by the Federal Government for corruption. He tackled the problem head on, instituting a training programme to ensure first responders could be prepared for all hazards. He focused on increasing efficiency and ensuring that staff were armed with the right tools for the job, rather than gimmicky “toys”. Things like water pumps and generators may not be “sexy”, he says, but they are extremely effective in a flood situation or power outage.


Masters was headhunted from his job as Chief of Staff for the Chicago Police Department by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and he has only praise for her. “She is a person of incredible integrity with a strong vision of how the government should serve the people who we work for. When she asked me to do the job I knew I had to engage and be very innovative in terms of redesigning the organisation,” he says. “We realigned the whole mission and restructured it from the bottom up, focusing on the threats we all face and how we could best plan, equip and train people to confront those. It’s very rare in such a government agency post to get the opportunity to take it apart and rebuild it into something new.”

He thinks his team has so far done an admirable job, but adds that they continue to learn things every day, studying latest national and international practice. “We need to stay one step ahead and be better prepared,” says Masters. Much of what he has done at Homeland Security is based on what he learned with the Chicago police where he invested heavily in staff training and where his time in office saw a 26-month continuous reduction in crime and the lowest homicide rate in the City of Chicago in 45 years.

Prior to this post, Masters was assistant to Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, overseeing public safety policy and operations for the City of Chicago. He has served as a liaison to the Chicago Police and Fire departments and the Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communications. He has also worked with the Washington D.C.-based Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organisation dedicated to revitalising the federal civil service, and with the United States Attorney’s office.


His research at Cambridge, where he did an MPhil in International Relations and was one of the first Gates Cambridge cohort in 2001, exposed him to a huge variety of viewpoints and he says that is something that has proved very important to his subsequent work. “Gates Cambridge was a phenomenal opportunity for me to be exposed to a remarkable group of scholars from so many different backgrounds, including members of the British and US military,” he says.

Arriving at Cambridge at the time of 9/11, Masters studied terrorism and corruption. A Truman as well as a Gates Cambridge Scholar, he continued his research at Harvard Law School, where he was managing editor of the Harvard International Law Journal and also joined the US marines. He rose to the rank of captain and is currently on reserve duty.  He says his research at Cambridge and Harvard has stood him in good stead in his jobs by giving him an awareness of how important it is to understand the ideologies at the root of terrorist attacks. At Cambridge, for instance, he studied Cold War history (vital to an understanding of Afghanistan’s recent history], Middle East history and 18th and 19th century Islamist thinkers. “That background has informed my experience of looking at the ideologies that are taking shape around the world,” he says.

His work at the DHSEM also includes preventative work tackling those ideologies at ground level, for instance, working on counter-terrorism initiatives. “That requires trust and building partnerships in the community. Where law enforcement agencies have been most successful in countering extremism and identifying individuals has been through working with community groups and building up relationships,” says Masters.

The department works with parents to help them understand the online activities of their children that “should give them pause”. It also takes heed of international developments. A recent event on radicalisation included a presentation about a British initiative. True to his Cambridge experience of being exposed to multiple viewpoints, Masters is also keen to involve the academic community and himself keeps a foot in the academic world. He is an adjunct professor specialising in federal criminal law at John Marshall School of Law where his lecture subjects include terrorism. He says: “I love being around students as they bring fresh perspectives and you learn a great deal. The job allows me to pursue my academic and research interests and to remain grounded in the academic world.” Asked how he fits in teaching with running the DHSEM, he laughs that he doesn’t sleep much.

Public service

Masters’ sense of public service derives, he says, from his family background. His mother was a school teacher and his father a lawyer and judge. “Public service was always stressed in our house,” he says.

Masters grew up in Cook County, leaving for school and to work in Washington, D.C.  Even at high school, though, he showed an interest in the wider world around him. Through a cousin who was an anthropologist, he became involved in working with Native Americans from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He set up an email pen pal programme between students at his school and those from the Oglala Lakota tribe in Pine Ridge. Every year his peers would go on a week-long camping trip with their pen pals to sites which held rich cultural and historical meaning for the tribe. Elders were invited to teach not just his peers but also the Pine Ridge students about their history. “It was a really meaningful experience,” says Masters. “It’s a very important part of our nation’s and the world’s history.”

Masters, who is getting married this month, was also part of Al Gore’s advance team during the 2000 election cycle, travelling ahead of the Vice President.

His interest in public service is driven in part, he says, by a desire to give back what he has been fortunate enough to have been given. “When you are given opportunities such as a Gates Cambridge and Truman Scholarship I feel you have an inherent obligation to give back,” he says. “That is the spirit in which the scholarships are given.”

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