Are Federal Law Enforcement Task Forces Good or Bad for Campus Police Departments?

Published: May 22, 2024

Universities, schools and hospitals face numerous threats of direct concern to campus and district law enforcement officials, including terrorism, student radicalization, the use of narcotics and other drugs, active shooters and other mass assaults involving knives and vehicles. Because of a heritage borne out of an original unarmed security mission, the recent establishment of the department, the small size, and/or campus administration prohibitions on the scope and intensity of law enforcement activities, many campus and district public safety departments lack some combination of training, resources and manpower to prevent these threats or mitigate their effect if they occur.

They lack the luxury of a dedicated criminal investigations unit; lack familiarity with undercover operations, bait operations, and interdiction of financial and electronic crimes; do not have a network of confidential informants, a fleet of undercover vehicles, surveillance equipment, and a network of officers in other jurisdictions with whom they can work synergistically. Further, college, hospital and school police departments often don’t have access to data bases or intelligence on individuals who are selling narcotics, potential active incident suspects, or radicalized individuals and their supporting networks. This information, however, does exist. It is collected by federal law enforcement agencies. Unfortunately, due to its classification, it is usually unavailable to campus police.

Federal task forces offer an opportunity to overcome these obstacles. Campus agencies that that have officers who are members of these task forces are provided information, equipment and contacts. In return for a commitment to the task force, the institution may be able to make significant inroads against crime on campus, making it safer and allowing the police to directly and visibly support the college’s, hospital’s or school district’s mission.

Advantages of Joining Federal Law Enforcement Task Forces Are Many

Working with federal law enforcement agencies offers some attractive benefits not normally available to campus police departments. As stated above, one of the more important benefits is access to federal data bases and real-time actionable intelligence. As a federal task force member, your officer will be able to provide specific and timely information to his or her department’s chief of police and commanders on possible threats to a campus or police operations. The provision of timely intelligence will facilitate development of operational plans that can be adjusted to address the threat. The access to federal databases will also enhance agency criminal investigations. With this information, an agency will be able to cast a wider net and interdict entire criminal organizations instead of lower level criminals.

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As a task force member, a campus officer will develop a network of local, state and federal law enforcement contacts. These personal liaisons will become invaluable to your agency because information exchanges between agencies will be swifter and more reliable. Further, expertise and resources in other agencies can be brought to bear on local campus problems. Commanders will be able to make better decisions and generate quicker police responses to threats on campuses.

Federal task force officers have the ability to conduct and assist on wire taps. This investigative tool can only be conducted by federal law enforcement agencies and state police departments. While wire taps can provide invaluable evidence in a case, they are manpower-intensive and very costly. Task force officers also have access to invaluable (and expensive) assets, such as surveillance aircraft, trigger fish (cell phone tracking) and cellbrites (for cell phone downloading) that can improve the quality and strength of their investigations.

Participation Improves Officer Skills, Morale

Being part of a federal task force will enhance the professionalism and morale of a department. Campus officers assigned to a task force will develop investigative skills beyond normal campus policing activities. Your officer will become proficient in writing search warrants; identifying, collecting and documenting evidence; developing interviewing skills; and testifying in court. The resulting knowledge base, professionalism, camaraderie and effectiveness will greatly improve officer morale.

Federal law enforcement agencies are assigned primary investigative responsibilities for certain types of crimes. For example, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, (ATF) is primarily responsible for firearms investigations, and the Drug Enforcement Agency, (DEA) has primary investigative responsibility for narcotics trafficking (along with the FBI). If there is a terrorism aspect or connection to a case under investigation by campus police, the FBI is mandated by the president of the United States to take over the investigation, causing an agency to lose the control and direction of its investigation. However, if a department is part of a federal task force, the campus or district agency can still exercise some control over the investigation.

Federal law enforcement agencies can also assist in investigating fraudulent documents (e.g., passports and student visas) and most cases regarding international students programs at colleges. Since these cases often go beyond the U.S. borders and therefore beyond a college police department’s jurisdiction and reach, collaboration with federal law enforcement partners can result in the apprehension and prosecution of the suspects.

In addition to the benefits already mentioned, there are many others to be gained by participating on a federal task force:

  • Federal Prosecution: In most federal cases defendants will receive longer jail terms than from state prosecution
  • Manpower: As a federal task force member, additional detectives with specific areas of expertise are available to address specific crimes in your jurisdiction
  • Funding: In most federal task forces, an officer’s overtime and travel expenses are reimbursed by the federal government, and a vehicle and equipment are provided
  • Seizures: A percentage of money and property seized during a federal investigation is given to participating agencies
  • Federal Deputation: A campus detective will be allowed to pursue criminals outside the college’s jurisdiction and not be limited by collegiate jurisdictional boundaries
  • Experience: An officer will gain invaluable experience in every aspect of criminal investigations

Be Aware of These Disadvantages

At the same time, there are also some downsides to participating on a federal task force:

  • Federal Prosecution: Federal prosecutors are often reluctant to prosecute hospital, school or university cases. This reluctance is due to many of these cases not being “sexy” enough to warrant federal attention or federal minimum quantities for narcotics.
  • Manpower: Detectives assigned to the task force will not be available to work cases in your jurisdiction. Their absence will place greater burden on your existing detectives. Further, an administration’s perception that a campus department has enough assets to support the Feds will undermine that department’s requests for additional manpower.
  • Jurisdiction: Federal task force members may not address the crimes occurring in a college’s jurisdiction
  • Supervision: An agency’s supervisors will lose control of detectives participating in a task force
  • Agency protocols: Task force officers may operate with different protocols governing investigations or tactics that are not approved by their home agency
  • Morale problems: It is possible that other members of your agency who are not on the task force will view their colleague as a prima donna; no longer one of them

Follow These 3 Recommended Practices

If a college department considers participating in a federal task force, it will do well to keep these recommendations in mind:

1. Ensure you have a clear understanding of task force objectives, what types of criminal activity it will be addressing and the task force’s duration. The objectives may not be a priority for your agency and the crimes may not be an issue on your campus. Consider, for instance, a human trafficking task force. Such groups are looking for detectives to augment their units due to their enormous caseloads. However, human trafficking may not exist in your jurisdiction or the problem me be so insignificant it doesn’t justify taking manpower away from other priorities.

2. Know your agency’s expected commitment regarding manpower, hours, equipment, travel out of the area and travel expenses. These can vary greatly between task forces. Some only require a detective to assist on cases that are significant and require additional manpower for a short period of time, such as a serial bank robber case. Others require the detectives to report to the task force office every day and work on federal cases only. In this latter circumstance, a department loses an officer to work campus issues.

3. Sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). A general hand shake leads to misunderstandings and no legal recourse for disputes over re-imbursements of expenses and overtime, seizure percentages, and opting out of the Task force.

It is mutually beneficial for campus and district police departments and federal law enforcement agencies to share intelligence and collaborate to combat crimes that affect college campuses. Task force membership is attractive, but not without significant potential costs. An additional avenue that a campus or district department may wish to consider is cultivating a relationship with specific task force members. The intelligence you may be able to provide will be welcomed by the task force, and your agency will be in a good position to share training and possibly reap some benefits (at no charge) to task force law enforcement operations of direct benefit to your campus.


Lt. David Smith currently serves in the Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) Police Department as a district commander. Before joining NOVA, he worked over 26 years in the Fairfax County Police Department. During those years, he was deputized as a federal agent for the FBI, DEA, ICE and a special agent for the ATF in a supervisory capacity. He worked on several federal task forces including the Northern Virginia Violent Crimes Task Force.  He can be reached at drsmith@nvcc.edu. This article was originally published in 2016, but the recommendations made in it still apply. 

Note: The views expressed by guest bloggers and contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety.

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