On December 14, 2015, Northeastern University students protested a decision by the university to arm campus police officers with semiautomatic rifles, in response to recent incidents of gun violence across the country.
“Watch CNN for five minutes," Northeastern University Police Department Chief Michael A. Davis told the Globe. “There are things that are happening across the country that cause us to pay attention."
The Boston Police Department also paid attention, but ultimately came to a different conclusion. “I’m not sure I see the need to arm inner-city college campuses with these long guns when their officers already have firearms," said Lieutenant Michael McCarthy.
Northeastern’s decision to further arm its campus officers came at a time when the role of university police is under intense scrutiny.
A day before students protested at Northeastern, University of North Texas campus police fatally shot a student wielding a weapon during a confrontation. The officer responsible for the shooting has been placed on administrative leave while the incident is investigated. And this past summer, now-former University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing was indicted for the murder of an unarmed man during a traffic stop (the victim was not a student). Tensing’s trial was scheduled for last week, but it has been delayed until February 11 to allow more time for discovery.
“I think campus policing is widely misunderstood," S. Daniel Carter, director of a campus safety initiative at Virginia Tech told the Washington Post, in response to the incident involving Tensing. “Many people think of them not as real police, dealing with inconsequential matters. Nothing could be further from the truth."
A 2014 study found that “campus police are marginalized by students, who perceive the officers more as security personnel than as sworn law enforcement officials." Students described campus police as “not real cops" who don’t have the same training as other police officers. In addition, students identified the purpose of campus police as protecting them from harm but not necessarily policing their behavior, whether underage drinking or other prohibited acts.
Contrary to students’ perceptions, however, the majority of campus police officers do undergo the same training as traditional law enforcement. According to the most recent information available from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, “about two-thirds (68 percent) of the more than 900 U.S. four-year colleges and universities with 2,500 or more students used sworn police officers to provide law enforcement services on campus." That percentage is much higher at public institutions, of which 92 percent rely on sworn officers. The figures are similar for officers who are armed: About two-thirds of officers at four-year institutions and 91 percent of officers at public institutions carry firearms.
Sworn officers employed by institutions of higher education typically have the same legal authority as any police force, though that authority varies by state. If state laws dictate that members of the police can carry weapons and make arrests, that generally holds true for sworn officers who work on college campuses. (Some institutions contract private security firms, who do not have the same authority as sworn police officers).
Despite the similarities, some insiders agree that campus police are indeed different from traditional officers. In an article for Campus Safety, Northern Kentucky University’s Chief of Police Jason G. Willis wrote, “University police departments historically have worked hard to mirror traditional law enforcement agencies, but the research tells us that the role of the campus police officer is in fact different than our traditional counterparts," in part because campus police are expected to do more for the community.
While campus police may provide services to the community beyond law enforcement — Willis identifies officers as educators, advisors, mentors, coaches, social workers, and counselors — the fact remains that they receive the same training as traditional officers. The majority of campus officers are screened by personal interview, criminal record check, reference check, background check, and driving record check. A small number are also screened based on their understanding of cultural diversity, conflict management skills, and problem-solving abilities — all qualities worth gauging in police who do more than just police.
Willis is correct that university police are more than straightforward law enforcement officers. As the authority responsible for campus safety, they are also tasked with maintaining an institution’s image. A low crime rate is a selling point for incoming students. Indeed, as observed by Hannah K. Gold for Rolling Stone, “Institutions of higher education are increasingly modeling themselves after corporations, and campus security has become not only a sales pitch to parents, but to anyone investing in the universities’ interests." GIven this, officers may feel pressure from administrators to maintain a strong presence that students ultimately find overbearing and overreaching.
In some cases, this presence extends beyond the bounds of the campus itself. Last year, a mentally ill man was fatally shot a total of five times by California State University San Bernardino officers. Though the Board of Trustees denied liability, they settled with the victim’s family for $2.5 million, and also agreed to revise the university’s crisis prevention policies. In some cases, the belief that campus police should have limited jurisdiction is reinforced by the law, such as when the North Dakota Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that North Dakota State University police do not have the authority to make arrests off campus.
As college police add to their arsenals, there is growing controversy around campus safety legislation. This November marked the 25th anniversary of the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act (informally known as the Clery Act), which was passed after 19-year-old Jeanne Clery was raped and murdered in her Lehigh University dorm room. It requires all colleges and universities to disclose reports of crime not only on campus, but near campus as well. Prior to the Act’s passing, campus administrators were not required to disclose crime statistics.
The Clery Act has recently come under attack, however, by politicians who feel it doesn’t do enough to help victims of crimes navigate the law. Additionally, a provision of the Act says college students do not have to report sexual assaults to law enforcement beyond college officials who can then choose whether or not to take action against alleged perpetrators. This is being countered by the newly proposed Safe Campus Act, which would require that victims of sexual assault report incidents to traditional law enforcement. While discussions around this debate have largely focused on victims’ rights, one consequence of the bill is that the scope of campus authorities in regard to sexual assault has been diminished.
As campus police prepare themselves for worst-case scenarios, proposed legislation seeks to limit these officers’ reach. And as institutions do what they can to ensure student safety, jurisdictional confusion is likely to engender continued controversy.
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