After Cincinnati, the big question: who are the campus police, anyway?

It was only in the seventies that campus police came to be formally recognized. C Holmes, CC BY-NC

On July 29, University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing was indicted on murder charges in the shooting death of unarmed motorist Samuel Dubose.

In 2013, University of South Alabama police officer Trevis Austin shot and killed Gil Collar, an 18-year-old freshman who was running around the campus nude while apparently under the influence of a new hallucinogenic drug called 25-I. A grand jury convened in that case declined to indict Officer Austin.

Incidents like these have raised major concerns about how campus police officers interact with citizens.

While campus police departments have existed since the late 1960s, people typically know little about these officers, their training or their jurisdictional authority.

How did campus police evolve and what is their role, mission and authority?

Enforcing rules on college campuses

American colleges and universities have existed for over 400 years and have always had a great deal of violence, vice and victimization.

For much of their history, colleges and universities handled violations of campus rules – including serious violations of the law – internally under the legal doctrine in loco parentis, Latin for “in place of the parents.”

The doctrine allowed colleges to regulate students’ personal conduct, including speech and movement, and take disciplinary action against them without a hearing.

That tradition effectively ended in 1961 in the case of Dixon v Alabama State Board of Education, where the US 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that students had a due process right to hearings relating to disciplinary matters.

That ruling helped pave the way for the creation of campus police departments to help regulate student conduct.

Police on campus

Although the first known instance of police officers patrolling a college campus occurred in 1899 when Yale University hired two off-duty City of New Haven police officers to patrol the campus at night, that type of arrangement remained unique through most of the 20th century. Instead, deans of students and campus watchmen – who were little more than maintenance personnel – handled student violations of campus rules.

It was in the late 1960s that things dramatically changed. Local police officers arrived on many college campuses in response to student protests and riots relating to the Vietnam War. Encounters with police officers often left students bruised, battered and in handcuffs; sometimes the encounters were fatal.

As Political Science Professor Jennifer Burke and I have shown in our research on campus crime, alumni and members of boards of regents (the governing body that oversees a particular university) were horrified at having local police on their campuses.

And so they joined with college and university presidents to lobby state legislatures to allow schools to create their own police departments that would employ sworn officers with full arrest powers.

Birth and development of campus police

By the early 1970s, enabling legislation and the demise of in loco parentis redefined the relationship of universities with their students. It was during that decade that state-sanctioned campus police departments slowly began to appear around the country.

Large, public universities where much student unrest had taken place were generally the first to create campus police departments.

The responsibilities of today’s campus police extend beyond the ivory tower. Michael Moore, CC BY-NC-ND

Typically, these early agencies were run by experienced, senior-level officers hired from local police departments. They were given the title of “Chief of Campus Police” and the latitude to hire and fire officers as needed.

Officers hired by these departments were usually required to complete the same academy training that municipal police officers were required to complete.

During the 1980s, the pace at which campus police agencies were being created quickened. This was in part because of efforts by grassroots organizations concerned about students’ safety on campus. For example, the Clery Center for Security on Campus engaged in major congressional lobbying to get policymakers to address campus crime. Public health researchers and feminists also lobbied Congress to address campus crime.

Subsequently, departments began appearing at all sorts of colleges and universities: two- and four-year, public and private, residential and commuter, rural and urban, sectarian and nonsectarian.

They also preferred hiring veteran officers who had completed police academy training because they could be put to work immediately.

Early campus police departments copied the organizational characteristics of their municipal counterparts. They adopted a top-down flow of communication, a hierarchical rank structure and specialized operations (eg, patrol officers and detectives; community relations personnel; crime prevention officers).

Patrol was organized into two or three daily shifts, 8–10 hours in length, that began with a “roll call.” Officers patrolled campus in cars clearly marked as police vehicles. They wore distinct uniforms and were equipped with weapons (including handguns), two-way radios, handcuffs, batons, etc.

They responded to calls for service via a centralized dispatch system that people (students, faculty members or staff) could call when they needed police services on campus.

Maturation of campus police departments

During the 1990s, still more departments were created. By 2004, about 75% of four-year schools enrolling 2,500 or more students were served by officers with full arrest powers. Two thirds of the schools employed armed officers.

As these agencies came into their own during the 1990s, they implemented extensive pre-employment screening for prospective hires that included background investigations, checks of driving records, interviews with references, psychological screening, drug testing and so on.

They also were less inclined to hire veteran officers from other agencies, preferring instead to develop their own officers.

The 1990s also saw campus police agencies become fully embedded into the fabric of campus life. Beyond routine patrol, officers engaged in crime prevention activities, provided safety and security training for students and staff and self-defense training for women. They also engaged in other outreach activities.

Departments also shifted their patrol tactics and began relying more on bicycle, foot and, in some cases, mounted patrol. They altered their organizational philosophy away from one that stressed rapid response to calls for service, to one that emphasized proactive, community-oriented policing.

A whole new set of issues

Post-9/11, campus agencies developed formal cooperative agreements with city and county sheriffs’ departments, which included routine, joint training exercises.

Training for campus police officers expanded. Some agencies now require over 1,000 hours of academy and field training for officers.

And, since the early 2000s, campus police departments have not only grown in size, but also became more diverse, as more women and members of minority groups were hired.

Additionally, as illustrated by the Cincinnati case, campus officers now have jurisdiction beyond the campus boundaries and find themselves engaging in routine patrol in neighborhoods surrounding a specific college or university. At least one reason for this is that students live in these neighborhoods.

A recent Bureau of Justice Statistics survey of campus police departments revealed that during 2011-2012, nearly 90% of campus police officers in the US had patrol and arrest jurisdiction off campus, which put these officers into direct contact with many more nonstudents and created a whole new set of issues, again tragically illustrated by the Cincinnati incident.

What is the need for campus police?

As the responsibilities of campus police officers extend beyond the “ivory tower” and into communities surrounding colleges and universities, they are more likely to encounter situations typically handled by municipal police officers including traffic stops, citizens with mental health issues and members of minority groups.

They will also encounter more potentially violent situations.

Of late, body cameras worn by campus officers are expected to address concerns about how they interact with citizens. Considering that Officer Tensing was wearing a body camera, I believe such an assumption is invalid.

Perhaps a more fundamental question that needs answering in light of the Cincinnati shooting is whether campus police officers are even needed.

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