7 Steps to Keeping Campus Cops Safe

Avoiding complacency and wearing ballistic vests are just two ways that both sworn and non-sworn officers can protect themselves while on the job.

The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund at Judiciary Square in Washington commemorates all of the fallen law enforcement officers who have died in the line of duty since 1791. As of April 4, 2013, there were 19,981 names on the Memorial Fund’s monument, and when the fallen officers for 2013 are added, the number will exceed 20,000. Forty three of the fallen on the monument’s walls were campus police officers.

At first blush, the number of campus officers who have made the ultimate sacrifice seems small, and indeed it is. However, to conclude campus policing is not a dangerous profession would be a serious mistake.

The first campus police officer died in 1923. Then, there was a 40-year hiatus until the next one was killed. Between 1963 and 2013, the 42 slain campus officers represent slightly less than 1% of the total number (5099) of officers killed. This 1% is consistent with the percentage of the fallen among the tens of thousands of law enforcement officers throughout the country.

It should be noted that security at school and hospital campuses is often provided by unarmed security officers. Many of these officers, unarmed and unsworn, have also been assaulted and killed, but their names are not included in the rolls of the Memorial’s honored fallen. Finally, the names on the wall do not include the many officers who were assaulted but not killed.

In short, as we see in the charts (click here to view them), campus police face the same challenges and dangers as their brother and sister officers in other federal, state, city and town jurisdictions throughout the country.

In light of this, both sworn and non-sworn personnel should adopt the following best practices.

1. Don’t Be Complacent
The most obvious, unhappy lesson from the above numbers is that policing the country’s school and hospital campuses is a dangerous profession; one that requires courage, commitment and self-sacrifice. There can be no room for complacency on our campuses. The belief that college campuses are bucolic islands of peace and tranquility surrounded by lawlessness is not only mistaken; it’s dangerous. Many campuses are located near or even in dangerous neighborhoods, and most campuses are open. People transit them on their way to work. They also come to use their libraries, attend plays and athletic events, and take classes. People also come to the campuses to buy and sell drugs; to steal autos, computers and other valuable items; to party; and, on occasion, to prey on young students.

The fact is that our campuses are a microcosm of our society, so it would be foolish to expect them to be havens of absolute safety. Failure to recognize this jeopardizes lives: those of complacent officers as well as their fellow officers and the faculty, staff and students we are sworn to protect.

2. Prepare for More than Just Active Shooters
We must continue to hone our skills and practice officer safety at all times. Consider the amount of attention and resources currently dedicated to preparing officers to respond to an active shooter incident. Did officers in Aurora, Colo.; Newtown, Conn.; Chardon, Ohio; Red Lake, Minn.; Nickel Mines, Pa.; and at the Washington Navy Yard ever expect a call to respond to an active shooter? It is doubtful.

The probabilities of an officer, either on campus or off, being killed on a traffic stop; struck by a vehicle while directing traffic; dying in a vehicle crash; shot by a burglar, someone who wants to kill a cop, any cop, or other suspicious person; or in an ambush or assault are higher than those of confronting an active shooter. Again, there is no room for complacency.

3. Wear Your Ballistic Vest
If there is no room for complacency, there can be no compelling reason for an officer not to wear his or her ballistic vest. From 2003 to 2013, almost half the officers killed on duty were not wearing their vests. So, it’s likely that several hundreds of our brothers and sisters would still be with us if they had been wearing their vests. Sure, vests are hot in the summer and almost always uncomfortable, but the comfort of not wearing one is a false benefit when one considers the heartbreak of a line-of-duty death to surviving family, friends and departmental colleagues. We often say we attend too many line-of-duty funerals. Wearing a vest might reduce the frequency of this sad obligation.

4. Get in Shape and Stay That Way
The fourth lesson concerns physical fitness. Heart attacks and other job-related illnesses accounted for 21% of all campus officers’ deaths. However, only 11% (177) of the 1540 officers slain between 2003 and 2013 died under similar circumstances. The average age of campus officers who died on duty from heart attacks was 46. Clearly, law enforcement is a vigorous profession, and officers who wear the uniform owe it both to themselves and to their fellow officers to maintain their own physical fitness. Officers are well advised to pay the same attention and commitment to a proper diet, regular exercise, and getting enough sleep as they do to maintaining their proficiency with firearms, cuffing techniques and other DT skills, and careful driving.

About the Author

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Lt. John Weinstein is the commander of Northern Virginia Community College Public Safety District 3.

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