Innovative Approaches to Confronting the Unique Challenges of Campus Policing
- By Lt. John M. Weinstein, PhD
- August 12, 2020
Many years ago, as a college student, my opinion of campus police was entirely negative: campus cops were not real cops; they were the wannabes who couldn’t cut it in municipal agencies. I suspect my views were shared by most students and faculty then, and are still shared by many today.
Since that time, I have been a deputy sheriff, a patrol officer and a chief of police and, for the last nine years, a commander in a police department at the country’s second largest community college.
In many ways, college policing is more challenging than municipal policing. Campus officers need to know the same laws and possess the same skills as their municipal counterparts but they also face unique challenges that complicate the effective delivery of law enforcement services and threaten departmental morale.
Unique Challenges Facing Campus Police
Getting the right people. While all law enforcement officers require excellent decision-making skills, courage, integrity, compassion, self-discipline and dedication, officers on campuses have a different emphasis than the street cops. As a street cop, I characterized my role as 80 percent protect and 20 percent serve. This emphasis is reversed on campuses; it is 80 percent serve and 20 percent protect.
In addition to their law enforcement duties, campus officers perform additional tasks, such administering lost and found, providing access control and responding to and documenting Clery and Title IX incidents. These tasks are significantly less exciting than patrol, vehicle chases and locking up law breakers, often the very motivators for young people to enter the law enforcement field in the first place. Add to this the fact that campus officers often deal with people who consider themselves entitled and a campus position starts to look less attractive to potential recruits.
Officers who want to patrol aggressively and compile impressive arrest records can create problems for college chiefs. There is no shortage of officers retiring from local agencies who may want a campus job but not all of these people have the temperament, service experience, and de-escalation skills to perform well in a college position. The last thing a department can afford is old-timers who “retire on active duty.”
Keeping the right people. When asking potential recruits why they want to become law enforcement officers, one hears some variation of wanting to serve the public and to make the community a better place. These noble sentiments can sustain a recruit in the academy but upon graduation, the campus police recruit often confronts a harsh reality.
While his or her academy colleagues are interdicting crime and stepping into active and exciting careers, the college officer’s more administrative responsibilities and activities often seem boring and unfulfilling. It is only a matter of time before many of the best recruits start looking elsewhere. Given the costs of recruitment, academy training, equipment, salary and benefits, and the year it takes a new officer to become a load-bearing member of the department, turnover becomes a serious and debilitating problem.
Keeping skills sharp. While young municipal officers are, within their first year, responding to a spate of felonies against persons and property, using their control tactics training, conducting searches, etc., campus officers rarely, if ever, answer such calls.
The challenge for campus officers is keeping their skills sharp and not succumbing to complacency. Rusty skills and the belief that nothing dangerous occurs on campus are a deadly threat to officer safety and make a campus more rather than less attractive to potential predators who view campuses as treasure troves of expensive equipment.
Earning R-E-S-P-E-C-T. On college campuses, in particular, the ethos governing police is not consistent with the college environment. Police are all about self-discipline, predictability, accountability and following the rules.
This orientation makes us appear as stifled, dream-crushing automatons, hardly consistent with the youthful exuberance and desire for experimentation of students, many of whom are on their own for the first time. Add to this the fact that law enforcement, dedicated to protecting established societal laws, is fundamentally conservative in nature and this dedication to preserving and protecting the status quo puts law enforcement as a whole on an ideological collision course with the people we serve.
If one adds to this the misperceptions about law enforcement drawn from the media and ignorance about the difficult training and complexities mastered by officers, one understands the values disconnect that exists between campus police departments and the college community.
Proving value. College campuses are much safer than their surrounding communities. As a result, many do not see the need for the “protection” services offered by police in low crime environments.
Further, police are not directly engaged in the primary purpose of the institution, which is education and training. On the list of college funding priorities, faulty support, building construction, buying state-of-the-art equipment, and promoting research are all funded long before police needs are met.
In a resource-constrained environment, doubts about the value added by police are translated into lack of funding and a general dismissal of their value. The lack of respect and community appreciation, coupled with lower funding, have a corrosive impact on campus law enforcement operations and ultimately upon recruitment and retention of quality officers.
Protecting the brand. Recent calls to “defund” the police, replace campus police with security officers, terminate campus police interactions and ending mutual support with surrounding agencies have put campus agencies under a spotlight.
In light of active incidents that have taken place on campus, threats in the surrounding community that occasionally come on campus, increasing levels of mental health issues, and protests, one can easily identify threats to officer safety and the maintenance of safe and secure campuses.
At the same time, many on college campuses, and in the public at large, do not appreciate these threats and the fact that the officer, who generally has to react to the threat, is at an immediate disadvantage. A strong case can be made for issuing patrol rifles, civil disturbance equipment, and external ballistic vests to officers but these items generate (mistakenly1) criticisms of the “militarization of police.”
This criticism is injurious because it further plays finto the “values disconnect” narrative discussed above. The inaccuracy of this allegation notwithstanding, associating police with militarism is anathema to the open and civil communication needed to enhance community-police interactions and effective service to the campus.
Limiting enforcement. Campus officers fulfill two roles. Obviously, they enforce laws. However, they are also college officials. The problem is that officers are often called on to enforce college rules, such as those concerning civil discourse in classrooms.
A professor who calls for police to eject a student, absent actual threats, violence or destruction of property, is not a law enforcement matter; it’s a classroom management and discipline issue that more correctly lies with the dean of students. Ejecting a student is likely to result in a suit for the denial of free speech. Similarly, having police accompany parking services to boot illegally parked vehicles or sit in on employee terminations is a civil matter.
Blurring the lines between civil and criminal actions is likely to undermine department morale and hold individual officers, the department, and the school at large in legal jeopardy.
Strategies to Overcome These Challenges
These challenges can be overcome, or at least mitigated, by a combination of strategies that foster communication and integration. The following strategies, which have been highly successful at Northern Virginia Community College, are advocated in addition to normal activities such as providing regular, quality and broad-based training to officers, recruiting and maintaining a diverse department, etc.
Ask any member of the college community if he or she knows about how cops operate, what they think, their responsibilities, etc. and you are likely to get some amalgam from the entertainment industry, the news and social media. Although most people think they understand the police, they don’t, and it behooves the police to fill in the knowledge gaps.
Outreach. A community outreach program, preferably led by a senior officer with a dedicated staff, can work wonders. A monthly public safety newsletter, occasional articles in campus publications, an Instagram account with a mascot (e.g., Penelope the NOVA Police Cat), and presentations given to classes, clubs, convocations, and faculty/staff meetings, provide important information while showcasing the accomplishments, professionalism and dedication of officers.
Also, remember that communication has to be two ways: coffee with the chief, and other listening sessions provide campus community members opportunities to share their views and concerns on topics they consider important.
Every interaction with citizens, whether during a traffic stop or a back to school convocation, offers opportunities to explain why and how officers do what we do, the intent behind the law, factors affecting policing and other complicated issues. For instance, we have found campus advocates promoting the issuance of body cameras to police become less supportive when they learn footage is releasable under the Freedom of Information Act or that the camera only records in two dimensions and doesn’t record all inputs potentially known to shape an office’s response, such as smell.
Take the school’s leaders to a departmental or academy firearms simulator. We did and the college’s attorney and several others at the vice president level were awestruck at the speed of action, the ambiguity of clues, the impact of adrenalin flow, and how easy it is to be “killed” in the simulator.
Those who experienced several scenarios emerged with a new appreciation of the difficulty of the job and the professionalism of their officers. The same enlightening interactions can be achieved with students. Establish a ride-along program that allows students to meet individual officers and learn about police operations as an objective third party.
There is a fundamental gap between the realities and goals of the officers on the beat and the chief in the office. Take outer vest carriers, for instance. Officers favor them because they are more comfortable, mitigate against back pain, and because they can be taken off for a few moments in the office for comfort.
On the other hand, the chief may oppose them because they conjure up the militarism criticism. Leadership must take pains to explain the “big picture” to build support for policies not seemingly in the best interest of officers. This explanation is imperative for morale. Consistent with this explanation, leadership must identify explicit department goals (they change over time in priority) and both how and why they generate specific decisions.
Officers understand implicitly that current protests against police give implicit bias and conflict de-escalation training higher status than firearms.
Integration. Campus police cannot exist if they are regarded as relevant only in emergencies. This “break glass if needed” mentality results in a force that is isolated from the school as a whole. The department that is not considered to provide useful and meaningful contributions to college life is a department that will wither away and fade to irrelevance.
There are numerous opportunities and venues for officers to contribute to the school beyond traditional police activities. The department should integrate itself into other campus operations. Police should participate on various college committees, such as for staff professional development or the awards committee.
Club sponsorship, such as the criminal justice club, is also an attractive option. Other opportunities are found in the classrooms. Police have real-life expertise in the psychology of human interactions, report writing, the law, and conflict de-escalation. Officers can and should teach these topics in various psychology, sociology, political science, English and communications classes.
The ability to explain the complexities of police work in an entertaining manner benefits the department by showing its relevance and professionalism. It also build contacts that encourage people to reach out when they have problems or become aware of criminal activity or concerning behavior. On occasions when police are called upon to explain some untoward action, they will have “money in the bank” which will bolster their credibility.
Many colleges allow employees to take classes at reduced or no cost. This is a win-win situation. Free classes are a great benefit for officers and it allows them to interact with other college citizens in a non-enforcement capacity.
Finally, don’t neglect interaction and integration with local law enforcement agencies. Contact between officers builds camaraderie and provides campus officers with heightened self-esteem as members of an honorable and important profession. Supporting local agency efforts at community events such as National Night Out, DEA’s Drug Take-Back, Shop with a Cop and Toys for Tots shows your department as a caring part of the community, builds links with colleagues in different agencies who can provide guidance in dealing with calls infrequently handled by campus officers, and promotes the goal of service.
Empowerment. First responders cannot do it all. Campus officers need the support and assistance of the entire campus community in creating and maintaining safe campuses. The key to this partnership is convincing campus community members they have a role in providing for their own safety and security and providing them with the means to do so.
As noted above, active incident response, tourniquet application, conflict avoidance and de-escalation skills, and women’s self-defense training are but a few of the services that police can provide to empower the campus community. Further, participation in the education of the campus community, in committees, openness and interactions in non-enforcement scenarios are all desirable.
Ultimately, the recognition of campus police as partners who provide not just an abstract service (i.e., safe campus) but a valuable personal service to community members will create the brand you want and allow you to provide the meaningful contributions to the campus community that will sustain the department, generate community respect for campus officers, and enhance morale.