Why Campus Cops Are So Dangerous
Private campus police departments often have less transparency but just as much power as city police.
By Nathalie Baptiste / The American Prospect
November 5, 2015
Gil Collar was only 18 years old when, in 2012, he ingested a hallucinogenic drug, stripped naked, and banged on the windows of the police station at the University of South Alabama where he was a freshman. When Officer Trevis Austin heard the commotion, he opened the door and fatally shot Collar. The campus police officer claimed that Collar charged towards him, but surveillance footage shows that Gil Collar never lunged or came within four feet of the police officer. In September, a federal judge cleared Austin of any wrongdoing.
College campuses began hiring their own police more than a century ago. But the exact rights and responsibilities of campus cops are a crazy quilt of different practices and standards. Even at their most professional, college police forces are required to disclose far less than their public counterparts. It’s one more case of privatization producing more confusion and less accountability.
In response to tension between city police officers and college students, Yale University became the first to hire their own officers. In 1894, Yale paid for two New Haven policemen to patrol the grounds. Other colleges began to follow suit. In the beginning, the majority of the campus police officers were not like Yale’s. They were more like watchmen—they did not have law enforcement training and many were retired from non–law enforcement jobs.
Campus watchmen in those years were glorified custodians, charged with protecting campuses from property damage, closing and locking doors, and other maintenance-related tasks. Not until the Vietnam War era, when colleges became hotbeds for anti-war protests and the National Guard was dispatched to break up civil disobedience, did large numbers of colleges seek to establish real campus police forces.
After a white police officer fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014, a national conversation around policing and racism began. Why are police officers rarely indicted? Why do police kill more blacks than whites? As we begin to debate and unpack these questions (and look for solutions), the policing of our college campuses largely flies under the radar and complicates these issues.
HIGHER EDUCATION INSTITUTIONS cannot simply establish forces with full police powers. That power must be granted through some type of state authority. Most states now have statutes that authorize campus policing; while they vary, the majority of them have common principles.
Authorization statutes typically identify whether they apply to both public and private universities, as in Georgia, or just public institutions, as in New York. Typically, state statutes also define the types of powers granted to campus police officers. In Oklahoma, campus officers are granted the same powers as municipal police. The authorization statutes usually contain training requirements, but there is no national standard.
Where state statutes are most likely to diverge is in physical jurisdiction. Departments with limited jurisdiction are typically only allowed to patrol on property or facilities that are owned or operated by the school. Extended jurisdiction gives campus police the power to patrol campus and some property beyond. Full jurisdiction, which campus police officers have in Wyoming, confers statewide police powers.
The University of Chicago was an early sponsor of a full-fledged police force with authority far beyond the campus. Founded in 1890 by John D. Rockefeller, the university saw its Hyde Park neighborhood experience white flight in the 1950s. As integration came, white homeowners were fleeing the area both because of racism and economic fears that black homeowners would cause property values to drop. In response to the newly integrated neighborhoods in its backyard, the University of Chicago created the South East Chicago Commission, which oversaw the demolition of hundreds of buildings in order to create a larger oasis for the elite university, at the expense of poor people and blacks who were driven out of the immediate neighborhood.
Exposed to a larger black surrounding community, university leaders felt vulnerable. So they created a then-unique university police force that would have full arrest authority in adjacent neighborhoods, with the full cooperation of Chicago’s regular police force. The South East Chicago Commission hired its first policemen in the 1960s. In 1968 the International Association of Police Chief helped the university turn its police department into a full-fledged law enforcement agency, formally deputized in 1989 by the city of Chicago.
According to the University of Chicago website, all new UCPD officers undergo 16 weeks of training at the Chicago Police Department’s training academy. They’re also instructed on ethics, diversity, and fair policing. After graduating from the academy, officers then undergo a 12-week field-training program supervised by UCPD officers and supervisors.
Today, the University of Chicago Police Department is the one of the largest private police forces in the world, second only to the Vatican Police. The student body is just under 15,000, but the force’s jurisdiction encompasses not just the campus but also the surrounding neighborhood, resulting in a total of 65,000 people being under the watchful eye of a private campus police force.
Thanks to a law passed in 1992 by the Illinois legislature, private colleges in the state are able to maintain full-fledged police forces—without being subject to the state’s Freedom of Information Act. With immense power but virtually no accountability, the UCPD has become a huge presence in Chicago—and a source of animosity and fear for the black population on and off campus.
In the meantime, other colleges have followed the University of Chicago model. Today, 75 percent of four-year institutions with 2,500 or more students use armed officers, a 7 percent jump from the 2004–2005 academic year. At public institutions, the overwhelming majority use sworn police officers—those with general arrest powers—compared to only 38 percent at private institutions. Eighty-six percent of all campus police officers have arrest jurisdictions beyond the universities they serve and 81 percent have patrol jurisdictions that extend into outside communities.
The average entry-level sworn officer received 1,027 hours of training, with the majority of that in the classroom, and the rest in the field. Non-sworn officers received an average of 230 hours of training, split between classroom and field training. Among campus law enforcement agencies at four-year colleges with 2,500 or more students, 74 percent require at least a high school diploma for sworn police officers, while only 3 percent require a four-year degree.
While an entry-level non-sworn officer’s average salary during the 2011–2012 academic year was $27,500, the average entry-level sworn police officer earned $37,000. Larger universities tend to pay more than smaller ones, and private institutions have a higher starting salary than their public counterparts. Among campuses with at least 5,000 students, 51 percent of sworn police officers worked for an agency that allows collective bargaining, compared to 43 percent of non-sworn officers. For both sworn and non-sworn officers, salaries were higher for police officers who are allowed to collectively bargain.
You might think that municipal police forces would feel threatened by the campus police, but mostly, you’d be wrong. The Fraternal Order of Police is the world’s largest organization of law enforcement officers, with more than 325,000 members (including campus police officers) organized by locals known as lodges. The organization has advocated on behalf of campus officers, including University of Cincinnati Police Officer Ray Tensing, who fatally shot unarmed 37-year-old Sam DuBose in July. After the shooting, the Hamilton County prosecutor did not mince his words: Joe Deters, a Republican who supports the death penalty, called for the disbandment of the University of Cincinnati police department. The Fraternal Order of Police in Ohio took offense to his harsh words and stood behind campus police in a press release, saying that University of Cincinnati police are “professional officers” who are dedicated to protecting their community, and who do their jobs with honor and distinction just like city police.
The National Fraternal Order of Police views campus cops as their equals. “Their mission is no different than any police agency, and that is to preserve peace and protect the lives of their citizens,” says National FOP President Chuck Canterbury. “The fact that some are still unarmed is a shame, and we encourage all universities and colleges to provide all the necessary police equipment to their departments.”
IN TERMS OF THE national debate about police accountability, there’s one big difference between city police and campus police at a private university. Because of open records laws, law enforcement agencies are compelled to release incident and arrest reports to the public, a requirement that becomes important in cases of alleged police excess. But many private universities have insisted that as private institutions, they do not have to comply with open record laws.
“There’s no good argument for why police departments shouldn’t disclose their records,” says Frank LoMonte, the director of the Student Press Law Center. “The way the police use their authority is definitely the public’s business.” The argument that college police are private begins to fall apart when campus police officers have extended jurisdiction, sworn arrest authority, and patrol in the surrounding neighborhood, as at University of Chicago or George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
“Campus police can police people who have no connection to the school other than proximity to it,” says Seth Stoughton, an assistant professor of law at the University of South Carolina. “A college population is largely transient, so campus police maybe have less incentive to do community outreach,” explains Stoughton, “and the type of community outreach they do is very different” than a city or county law enforcement agency.
People who are not affiliated with the school, but who live in a neighborhood under campus police jurisdiction, are subjected to a police force with little if any accountability. When Tajh Blow, a Yale student who is the son of New York Times columnist Charles Blow, was roughed up at gunpoint by Yale police, their explanation was that this was a case of mistaken identity—they didn’t know he was a Yale student—as if this were defensible treatment of a local. An internal investigation by Yale cleared the police. “It’s fair to speculate that campus police fight less often and less seriously with students,” says Stoughton, “and if that’s what the officer is used to, they view non-students as more of a threat and that can change the way officers go about policing.”
In Chicago, the Campaign for Equitable Policing is a project of the Southside Solidarity Network, which works for accountability and equitable policing practices in the UCPD, both on campus and off. “The reason why our campaign started is because of the stories we were hearing from young black people about constant harassment and aggressive policing tactics,” explains Tristan Bock-Hughes, a junior who is a leader of the group. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who would deny that the UCPD treats black people differently than white people, especially black people in the area who don’t look like they belong.
The University of Chicago Police Department has an Independent Review Committee to review complaints that deal with excessive force, violation of rights, abusive language, or dereliction of duty. The committee evaluates the actions of the UCPD, and makes recommendations regarding the UCPD’s policies and procedures. The committee is made up of three faculty members, three students, two staff members, and three community members, all appointed by the provost.
Since March 2005, there have been 130 complaints against the UCPD but 31 of those complaints were outside the purview of the Independent Review Committee. Each year, the IRC releases an annual report with information on the complaints. The University of Chicago says it is working on increasing the transparency of the campus police department by disclosing traffic stops and field interviews on its website. “There is a lot of information on there that goes above and beyond the information given by most law enforcement agencies,” says Marielle Sainvillus, the university’s director of public affairs. But that’s as far as transparency goes in the department.
Since the Illinois Private College Act doesn’t require the UCPD to release arrest records or incident reports to the public, it can be hard for activists to document racial profiling or abuse of power. If a case similar to the shooting death of Sam DuBose were to occur at the University of Chicago, consequences for the offending officer would be hard to achieve.
IN THE NATION'S CAPITAL, a recent push for extended campus police powers fueled a debate about the difference between city and campus police. George Washington University is a prestigious and private university located in Washington, D.C.’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood—just four blocks from the White House. GW is lacking in green space, as the campus spans several city blocks. The campus police department tasked with keeping the campus safe is made up of special police officers commissioned by the city.
The mayor of Washington, D.C., is able to commission special police, who must receive 40 hours of training. In order to become part of the police department at GW, an individual must be able to obtain the special police officer (SPO) certification within 120 days of employment. The officers are required to have a minimum of a high school diploma or GED equivalent and either one year of experience in protective services or an associate’s degree in criminal justice or a related field.
New hires undergo six weeks of field training, certification training (such as defensive driving and pepper-spray usage), as well as seven weeks of academy training at the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area Campus Public Safety Institute. The starting salary for a campus cop at GW is a comfortable $48,800.
The type of training GW campus police receive differs from the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department. D.C. police officers receive a starting salary of $52,184, but undergo more extensive training. In the academy, individuals must complete 28 weeks of intensive academic and physical skills training, including firearms, civil disturbance, and vehicle skills.
Though D.C. police and GW campus police do not have the same level of training or professionalism, GW (along with other colleges in the District) began pushing in 2013 for expanded jurisdiction. This move sparked a debate among Foggy Bottom residents, students, and campus officials. While some Foggy Bottom residents wanted campus police to be able to respond to their noise complaints, others worried about the fact that the GW campus police department is not a full-fledged law enforcement agency.
Those fears aren’t unfounded. In a FOIA request, the student newspaper The GW Hatchet uncovered the fact that campus police officers had been knocking on doors of private homes, had followed a car off campus, and had improperly detained three students suspected of having marijuana in a public park.
In 1974, Congress passed the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which requires schools to protect the confidentiality of students’ education records. In 1992, Congress amended FERPA to remove privacy protections for campus police reports. Despite this, colleges continue to cite FERPA as the reasoning behind not releasing police incident reports.
Perhaps the best way to get campus police departments to release their data is through legislation. In August 2013, police officers at Rice University—a private college in Houston—beat 37-year-old Ivan Joe Waller with batons during his arrest for stealing “bait bikes,” placed by the officers in a bicycle-theft operation. A local television station aired portions of the arrest that were caught on tape, enraging local lawmakers.
But since Texas law at the time didn’t require private institutions to release information, many details of the case were left in the dark. “We need to make certain we stop police officers from being able to hide behind their private institution status," State Senator John Whitmire told the Houston Chronicle in December 2013.
In response to the incident, Whitmire introduced legislation that would require private universities to comply with Texas’s Public Information Act, and in May 2015, the state legislature voted unanimously to pass the bill. Texas joins North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, and Ohio as states that require private universities to release some of their arrest records and incident reports. It may come as a surprise that many of the states that require disclosure of records are in the South, because their populations tend to be more pro–law enforcement and more conservative, but their private universities are predominantly white.
The release of private records could also help in combating racial profiling on college campuses. Racial profiling by campus police happens, but the data isn’t easy to come by. “It’s not easy to get information from any police department,” policing expert Seth Stoughton explains, “but private colleges are exceptionally close-mouthed about different information, from their use of force statistics to their approach to investigating crime.”
THE UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA is a private Ivy League school in Philadelphia. Its police department is tasked with policing more than 24,000 students, and its jurisdiction extends out into the city of Philadelphia.
In 2003, after a racial incident spurred an investigation, the school issued a report on racial profiling by the University of Pennsylvania Police Department (UPPD). The report found that UPPD stopped black people, whether in a car or on foot, more than any other racial group.
The release of the report did not do much to curb racial bias in the UPPD. In April, The Daily Pennsylvanian—an independent, student-run newspaper—reported that seven cases involving use of force and civil-rights violations had been filed against the department since 2012.
Campus police and city police also share in the militarization of our law enforcement agencies. In 2006, the University of California, Los Angeles, police used a Taser on a student in the library. Mostafa Tabatabainejad, a junior, was studying in the library while police were doing routine checks, making sure everyone in the library after 11:00 p.m. was a student. Tabatabainejad, who is of Iranian descent, refused to give identification, assuming he was being singled out because of his race. When Tabatabainejad refused to leave the library, he was shocked at least three times with the Taser. In 2007, Los Angeles police accountability expert Merrick Bob, who was a court-appointed monitor for the LA Sheriff's Department, said the use of the Taser was excessive.
And Tasers and batons are not the only weapons campus police are equipped with. The 1033 program—which provides police officers with military equipment—also extends to officers who police college students. Many Americans were shocked by scenes from the Ferguson protests that flooded their screens—the police looked more like military units. The same scenes could emerge from a college campus.
“Over 100 schools have military equipment,” says Pete Haviland-Eduah, the national policy director of Million Hoodies. The weapons and equipment range from “barricade fencing for large events to modified grenade launchers, tear gas, and assault rifles,” says Haviland-Eduah. “At least 63 schools are known to have M16s and M14s.”
In 2013, Ohio State University acquired a mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicle, which is designed to withstand mines, improvised explosive devices, and other conditions seen in warfare. Ohio State is in Columbus, and not a warzone, so why do the campus police need this type of vehicle? The OSU police chief said the MRAP vehicle could be useful during a tornado or a bomb threat.
“Campus police are arming themselves for the next potential Virginia Tech,” says Haviland-Eduah, referring to the deadliest mass shooting on a college campus in American history. “They think that military equipment will prevent the next mass shooting.”
In January 2015, President Barack Obama issued an executive order addressing the use of military equipment by law enforcement agencies. The executive order established the Law Enforcement Equipment Working Group, which in turn issued a report containing recommendations that included consistent and transparent rules for acquiring weapons; analysis reports for incidents involving military weapons; proper training for police officers who use these weapons; and creating uniform standards for suspending from the weapons-transfer program those law enforcement agencies that violate laws.
The use of military weapons by campus police, however, was given just a footnote in the order. The Permanent Working Group, which is responsible for implementing recommendations, “will further consider the extent to which acquisition of controlled equipment via Federal programs by LEAs [law enforcement agencies] operated by institutions of higher education furthers the interests of student and campus safety.”
Even if the Obama administration is dragging its feet, there are some lawmakers who have identified problems with campus policing and have taken steps to rectify them. In February, Illinois State Representative Barbara Flynn Currie proposed H.B. 3932 in the state’s assembly. The bill would amend the Private College Campus Police Act to require police departments at private universities to release information on arrests and incidents to the public.
The administration’s efforts to combat police brutality is a step in the right direction, but ignoring the increasing problem of police violence on our college campuses takes us two steps back. The shooting of Sam DuBose and the shadowy nature of the University of Chicago Police Department prove that simply training campus officers alongside city cops isn’t the only remedy.
De-escalation training, community engagement, a robust complaint process, diversity training, and consequences for police officers who abuse their power are just a few solutions for American policing in 2015. If America wants fair and equitable policing, law enforcement agencies—campus ones included—should adhere to a national standard of professionalism, training, and accountability.
The expansion of campus police departments is part of two trends afflicting America today. Privatization of public functions makes institutions less transparent and accountable. And the proliferation of different kinds of police agencies often goes hand in hand with a reduction in public accountability. Transit police and Alcohol and Beverage Control departments also raise the same kind of questions about policing jurisdictions, but at least they are still public institutions. “Campus police may be the least democratically accountable,” Seth Stoughton says.
In post-Ferguson America, the role of policing in our society has become a topic discussed by everyone from activists to politicians. Addressing police brutality has been a delicate dance so far, but even if national reform does come, we cannot afford to ignore unchecked campus police power.
Nathalie Baptiste is a writing fellow at The American Prospect. She has worked as a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus and written for Inter Press Service