Public safety partners on campus

Cooperation between college and local police is expanding, although sexual assaults remain a major concern

When David Perry patrolled the streets of Albany, Georgia 20 years ago, the relationship between his police department and the campus police force at his alma mater, Albany State College, was almost nonexistent. “It was a matter of ‘You stay on your turf, we’ll stay on ours,’” Perry says.

Times have changed, as college officers have received more advanced training to prepare for shooters on campus, hazardous materials and other crises.

Since becoming the police chief at Florida State University in Tallahassee almost a decade ago, Perry—who also serves as the president of the 2,000-member International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators (IACLEA)—has witnessed a marked change in how campus, local, county and state police can work together.

“The trend has significantly improved,” he says, “and our partnerships have been enhanced through trainings, joint operations and expanded information sharing.”

Police at many institutions now run through emergency drills with their local counterparts. Some schools have seen their officers’ jurisdiction expanded into surrounding communities. College officers also are patrolling alongside local police, in some cases setting up roadside sobriety checkpoints.

Funding specific to the expanded jurisdiction, through state and federal agencies, sometimes allows these efforts to happen. For example, over the past several years SUNY Buffalo State has received more than $500,000 in grants from the U.S. Department of Justice to expand community policing and police-community initiatives to curb underage drinking.

This past August, the Georgia Southern University police department was awarded $8,000 by the state’s Office of Highway Safety for a new breathalyzer to identify drunk drivers.

Putting it all on paper

Officials from schools that have extended their police jurisdiction into the community or have engaged in joint patrols with local police forces say that spelling out roles and responsibilities in a written document is a must.

That memorandum of understanding with the local police is “something that makes sure our role is official,” says Lt. Eric Tejada of the University of California, Berkeley.

The University of Maryland marked its expanded jurisdiction initiative with a high-profile signing of an agreement by Police Chief David Mitchell.

College police chiefs suggest that the document:

  • Define how the university will interact with its city and county.
  • Specify that university and local police will be operating within each other’s jurisdiction.
  • Identify a protocol for when campus police officers need back-up from the local police department.
  • Spell out a system for sharing information about actions that campus police have taken while patrolling off campus.

“If you say, we’re going to patrol three miles off campus without an agreement and your enforcement powers are not recognized as legal, any evidence you collect is considered ‘fruit of the poisonous tree,’ ” warns Florida State University Police Chief David Perry. Such evidence would likely be disallowed in court.

Colleges and universities could face liability claims for performing unauthorized police actions, as well, Perry adds. “There’s also the issue of safety. If you are operating outside of your jurisdiction, where’s your backup?”

But for all of the growing cooperation and funding, how colleges and universities investigate campus sexual assaults has shed a harsh light on the responsibilities of local police. Following is a look at the challenges of dealing with reports of sexual assault cases as well as positive examples of enhanced collaboration.

Sobering numbers on sexual assault

The problem of sexual assaults at colleges and universities gained even greater prominence in April when a White House task force noted that 20 percent of female college students have been sexually assaulted. Confidential surveys show that only 12 percent of those alleged victims reported the attacks to school authorities or local police.

“I think sexual assault is more underreported on college campuses than in the general population,” says Peg Langhammer, the executive director of Day One, a nonprofit organization serving sexual assault victims in Providence, R.I.

“Victims decide there’s too much stigma going forward,” adds Stephen Baker, the director of public safety at the University of Rhode Island. “They’re uncomfortable going in front of a jury. And there may not be enough evidence to support a conviction—a lot of the time the victim doesn’t remember the assault.”

Another reason for the low prosecution rate: Victims can seek justice through their college’s disciplinary committee instead of from the criminal justice system. A student found guilty of sexual assault can be suspended or expelled.

“I hear victims say that they appreciated being able to tell their story in a non-antagonistic environment in which they can’t be asked about their sex history,” says URI Dean of Students Mary Jo Gonzales. That approach worries Langhammer because, she says, the administrators presiding are not judges or lawyers and sometimes use terms like “sexual misconduct” in place of “sexual assault.”

In May, the U.S. Department of Education announced it was investigating 55 schools in 28 states and the District of Columbia for mishandling sexual assault and harassment cases. Such violations can carry large fines. Last year, Yale was fined $165,000 for failing to report four sexual assaults during the previous decade. During 2013, the DOE levied fines totaling almost $1.5 million on a record eight institutions.

And in just the past year, a number of female students at high-profile universities, including Brown and Yale, have alleged publicly that school officials discouraged them from going to the police.

“Colleges have preferred to deal with sexual assault in-house,” says Langhammer. “They don’t want the perception that they have an unsafe campus. And they’re concerned about their reputation with donors and alumni. It’s institutional self-preservation, and it’s very pervasive on campuses around the country.”

The place of college police

College police chiefs such as URI’s Baker and FSU’s Perry say that they could aggressively investigate sexual assaults, and involve local police and district attorneys, if only victims would come to them in greater numbers.

“We know that giving victims more opportunity to report [a sexual crime] can make a difference,” Perry says.

A growing number of campus police departments do not legally need to involve local police. These campus departments consist of “fully sworn” officers who have the same authority as their local and state counterparts. They can investigate crimes, make arrests and bring cases directly to the district attorney or state attorney general.

Still, victims’ advocates such as Langhammer suggest that colleges should let local police take the lead in any investigation of a sex crime. “They’re absolutely better trained and more equipped, and it’s a criminal case,” she says, adding that local police may be more skilled in the timely and thorough collection of evidence so critical in rape cases.

Christopher Wells, vice president for student life at DePauw University in Indiana, does not agree. He says there may be some institutions where campus police don’t have the appropriate skills, but DePauw’s sworn officers are capable of detective work and have received sexual assault training.

“We also help victims get into contact with city detectives,” says Director of Public Safety Angela Nally, noting that the police chiefs of DePauw and surrounding Greencastle serve on the same public safety committees. “We know the city police personally, and they have a sexual assault team.”

Nally adds that the two police forces often investigate suspected crimes together. She points to a recent arrest of DePauw students for manufacturing drugs on campus. Working together, Nally and her Greencastle counterparts identified the suspects and obtained search warrants.

Seeking solutions

Langhammer suggests that campus police could work better with outside authorities if other campus agencies—such as crisis centers or health services—altered their approach to dealing with victims. Women are not being adequately informed about all of their options, she says.

“We’ve heard from student victims who were told, ‘You might not want to go to the police. It takes a long time. You’ll have to testify,’” she says. “We say, ‘It’s your choice. We can support you through the legal process.’’

Day One personnel provide information about the criminal process, including the various pretrial court hearings that might be required; they help victims communicate and maintain contact with local police and the Rhode Island Department of the Attorney General; and they provide counseling over the course of the criminal prosecution.

The California state Legislature is considering a law requiring colleges to report all alleged sexual crimes to outside law enforcement unless the victim expressly forbids it.

J. Malcolm Smith, the dean of students at Salve Regina College in Newport, R.I., says schools could conduct more thorough investigations if laws were more flexible. Under Title IX, schools have only 60 days to resolve a complaint—though criminal investigations often take longer. Smith suggests allowing schools to take up cases after the criminal process is complete.

Successes in other areas

On other fronts, college police forces have been blazing new trails with neighboring police departments. One catalyst has been the legacy of the deadly shooting sprees at Virginia Tech in 2007 and two years ago at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

The impetus to collaborate with local police dates back even further, to the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, says FSU’s Perry. “Columbine was one of the first indicators that strong partnerships were needed.”

A growing number of higher ed institutions now train with local police and other emergency personnel to respond to shooters on campus. And this past August, DePauw and county authorities conducted a desktop simulation of a hazardous material spill. There will be a simulation of the same crisis next year.

Nally says the joint exercises are one facet of the larger relationship that DePauw has with the neighboring Greencastle Police and the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office. “They have officers specializing in operating emergency vehicles. We have multicultural trainers,” Nally says. “We open up these training to each other at no cost.”

Increased cooperation also is required when the jurisdiction of university police expands into the surrounding community. Last year, the University of Maryland police department in College Park signed an agreement to expand patrols over three square miles of city streets off campus.

The new arrangement allows university police to monitor students living off-campus. They investigate thefts of student property and respond to complaints by neighbors about loud student parties. “We had an arrest not long ago for a burglary in progress,” says Director of Public Safety David Mitchell.

“The visible presence of our police officers throughout the city of College Park deters crime and reduces fear,” he says, adding that the school’s participation in local law enforcement curries goodwill. “The St. George’s County Police have been happy to have a helping hand.”

On the beat together

Recently, other institutions have initiated joint patrols with neighboring police forces. Earlier this year, Rutgers University began patrols with the hometown New Brunswick, N.J., police, and two years ago, the University of Massachusetts, Amherst inaugurated an off-campus “party patrol” with the local force.

The University of California, Berkeley’s teaming with local police dates back to the 1960s, says the school’s Lt. Eric Tejada. The patrol covers a five-square-block area densely populated by students and non-students. The crimes of most concern are street robberies and assaults, Tejada says.

Alcohol abuse by students and the general public also is a huge issue for the joint patrol. “We’re professional police, and either of us can book [an offender]. We’re making sure that we’re being good team members,” Tejada says.

He notes that the presence of UC Berkeley police officers is valued by the local population as an extra layer of protection, at least most of the time. “I think in general people in the neighborhood appreciate what we’re doing,” he says. “But this is Berkeley. Not everyone waves at us with all five fingers.”

At FSU, meanwhile, the campus police force conducts joint drug investigations with local police and participates in DUI checkpoints. “It shows that we’re part of the community,” Perry explains. “We’re all in this together.”

Ron Schachter is a writer based in the Boston area.


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