For a New Policing Model, Look to Small Campus Public Safety Departments

Traditional law enforcement agencies should consider adopting many of the public safety approaches that work on college campuses.

For a New Policing Model, Look to Small Campus Public Safety Departments

The conversation about police reform focuses, understandably, on large urban municipal departments. Policing models developed in these environments evolved in a context of a high frequency of violent crime and are built with a focus on mitigating violence and “fighting” crime.

Campus public safety and law enforcement evolved in a different environment, one in which the primary mission was not crime fighting but rather personal and academic development. This evolution in a different habitat has led to the development of policing models and approaches to public safety that are in many ways drastically different from urban municipal policing. This alternate reality of policing just may provide insights for police reformers on what new models of policing may look like.

Small campus police departments typically operate with limited resources, both in terms of staffing and operating budgets. It forces these departments to look at unique staffing models, interdepartmental collaboration and resource sharing. It requires officers to be cross-trained to fulfill multiple roles, some of which may have nothing to do with traditional policing. These unique circumstances, played out in the campus environment in which police are meant to be part of the developmental journey of their students, result in a different policing product that now may be more relevant to the wider industry.

Campus Police Emphasize Intervention Versus Enforcement

In campus policing, encountering a student whose behavior violates policy, local ordinance or state statute is approached as an opportunity for personal development. The officer’s focus is less on developing probable cause of a criminal violation to empower him or her to make an arrest and more on understanding what might be behind the immediate behavior and what intervention might most effectively put this student back on a trajectory toward academic and personal success.

This primary mission directive is always subordinate to public safety. If the behavior is a threat to public safety, officers may then flip their focus to mitigating the public safety threat, but the vast majority of our contacts with community members are not serious public safety threats.

This behavioral intervention approach allows for a more diverse set of options for the officer, beyond “arrest or don’t arrest.” Officers are trained to understand the broad array of services and support systems available to the campus community and to evaluate and select options that will facilitate positive changes in the student’s behavior.

Perhaps a referral to the counseling center for a student struggling with substance abuse or depression would be the best path. The officers are trained to recognize when these referrals are appropriate and then provided simple pathways to access the resources.

It’s not unusual for an officer to talk with a student and say, “How about I walk with you over to the counseling center and we see if Jill’s in her office. She’s really great at helping with this kind of stuff.” In lieu of a criminal charge the officer can opt to send a violation into the student conduct process which focuses on an educational/developmental intervention.

Campus Cops Wear More Hats

Municipal cops often complain that “I’m not a counselor or a social worker or an animal control officer…” In campus policing we’ve learned to embrace wearing many hats.

On many campuses the police department is the only department that operates 24/7/365, so when employees who are remotely accessing their desktop computers during the quarantine need a reboot, they call the police to go to the office and power up their PC. When a resident student’s toilet is overflowing at 3:00 a.m., they call the police to contact the on-call plumber.

Municipal policing could never extend itself to those levels to assist their communities, but, if policing is to survive, it must be willing to adapt. Cops must embrace wearing many hats and that means developing competence in areas not traditionally associated with policing.

Small campus departments don’t typically have investigation divisions, traffic units or intelligence offices. Every patrol officer needs to be trained to some extent in all of those areas. A first responder should be prepared to interact with a mentally ill community member in crisis, the victim of a sexual assault or a kid who’s never consumed alcohol before who just finished his third Red Bull and vodka. All cops should be able to de-escalate a community member who’s scared, angry, embarrassed, confused or mentally ill.

The phase, “That’s not my job” needs to be met with some scrutiny. Some of it really isn’t our jobs, but we’ve got to be a bit more open minded and look at a situation from the “how can I help” angle instead of assessing whether it matches a specific bullet point on a job description.

Traditional Agencies Might Consider Adopting Hybrid Staffing Models

I would love to have 20 patrol officers, six sergeants and a team of telecommunicators, but there’s no budget for that, so we have a staffing structure that combines sworn and non-sworn personnel with overlapping fields of responsibility who work side by side as first responders. Civilian safety officers assist police officers in the field with service and enforcement calls but are also cross-trained as dispatchers. Cops can be tasked to unlock an office, jump start a car or investigate a power outage.

Depending on the particular call for service, a campus safety officer, police officer or both may be dispatched. The police staff co-train with residence life staff, and the police communications center has the ability to dispatch personnel from either department, so a loud party complaint might get a resident assistant (RA) and police officer. Depending on the circumstances, the RA may take the lead while the police officer is there for support.

Municipal departments might consider similar models with personnel trained and equipped for different types of calls. PSAPs could have pre-loaded dispatch protocols for various situations. In the same way a traffic crash with injuries automatically triggers police and EMS to be dispatched, a suicidal subject call could trigger police, ambulance and a social worker.

Asking police personnel to accept responsibilities not traditionally in the purview of law enforcement means selecting staff willing to resist the urge to say, “That’s not my job.” Candidates deserve to know up front what your department’s values and expectations are. The recruitment and hiring process becomes important to meeting this objective.

Candidates should know if your department isn’t about “runnin’ and gunnin’” and is more focused on community support. They need to be tested in the interview process to evaluate if they’re ready to approach policing differently, if they have cultural competence, if they see community members as collaborators in achieving public safety or adversaries.

Campus Police Embrace Robust Immersive Community Education

The first contact with campus police for students, employees and parents comes during student or employee orientation as part of the department’s community education program. Community education serves as an effective channel to transmit messages about public safety but is also our initial conduit to begin the relationship and trust building process.

The relationship between the community and the police cannot be taken for granted. Trust, respect and compliance should not be assumed. They should be earned through a process of getting to know each other.

Tap into your department’s best personalities and put them in front of the public: in presentations, on social media, in community activities in which one might not expect to see police. Cops attend community programs with no other agenda than to be present in a positive environment. Cops teach classes, not just on self-defense or internet safety, but on study skills and academic survival.

We use programs like ALICE and RAD to meet and get to know our community members where they can see us at our best. It’s very rare for a community member’s first police contact to be in an enforcement interaction or emergency call for service.

This doesn’t require cops to dance, make goofy videos or embarrass themselves to earn Facebook likes. Your cops should be themselves, share their expertise, demonstrate their skills to the community in a way that is genuine and credible. They don’t have to be goofy, but they must be willing to expose their humanity.

Tactical Training and Capabilities Must NOT Be Ignored

We are not attempting to create a façade that crime, violence and evil don’t exist. We’re just shifting the focus toward the positive to the extent possible.

Officers need to be trained and equipped for the bad stuff. Proficiency in police use for force is essential. Highly trained, well-practiced use of force practitioners use force less often and more efficiently. Thoroughly understanding constitutionality, statutory authority and department policy combined high proficiency in tactics, techniques and weapon systems makes your officers and communities safer.

Communities with less violence should train more because low frequency of use of force occurrence translates into less repetitions and could mean less competence. Your officers must be ready to meet tactical threats. They must resist complacency and the “it can’t happen here” mindset.

Train them and equip them. Patrol rifles, plate carriers and ballistic helmets should all be part of the inventory. And when the community outcries about militarization, educate them. Police militarization is about culture and mindset, not equipment. Carrying a patrol rifle doesn’t define a militarized department. Behaving like an occupying army does. Treating community members like the enemy does. Spend some of your reservoir of trust to help your community understand this and accept the need for preparedness.

My point is not remake every municipal police department in the image of campus public safety. I’m not so naïve as to think what works on a bucolic suburban campus can be directly implemented at 69th and Ashland, but I think there are relevant comparables that have been field tested on campuses, which may be applicable in an urban municipal environment.

We have variables in our equation that are different from many urban municipalities: low crime, low density, a population (both employees and students) that the institution has selected to be a part of the community. So, understandably, we’ve evolved into a different type of public safety structure.

Nonetheless, we’ve got a model that is effective in maintaining public safety, responding to criminal incidents and critical emergencies, and working collaboratively, positively and communally with our community in an environment of trust and mutual respect. It’s not perfect, but it may offer at least some conceptual prompts as we look to new ideas, frameworks and approaches.

Mike Zegadlo is chief of police at Lewis University in Romeoville, Illinois. 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 magazine.

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