The Future of College Policing and Security
Institutions of higher education are evolving, which poses both challenges and opportunities for campus law enforcement and security departments.
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.
Recently, I sat on a selection committee to hire a college police chief. One of the candidates had an intriguing answer when asked what he considered to be the greatest future challenge to law enforcement. His unexpected answer was: “We are!” His answer reminded me of the quote by Pogo cartoonist Walt Kelly: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
The candidate argued the world is changing so quickly that we can no longer uncritically do things by default the way we always have. In short, many traditions are good, but some may have become toxic in light of changing socio-economic and cultural trends. The challenge to the leader is more than knowing which traditions need to change. He or she must also have the ability to evolve the department toward a new set of goals and priorities as well as the resulting operational paradigms they generate.
A focus on how a college public safety department should change is putting the cart before the horse. A college police (or security) department does not exist within a vacuum; it exists within the college community it serves. Since the college provides funding, expectations, and policies, a more productive place to begin this analysis is how colleges themselves are changing and what threats and opportunities accompany these changes.
Colleges Are Dynamic Environments
In an article I wrote for Campus Safety several years ago, I identified eight trends that would affect policing over the next 50 years. These trends were grouped into two categories: socio-political and technological trends. The former included shifting population ages, increased immigration, domestic terrorism, and the balkanization of society. I would add three more trends to the socio-political trends category. They are:
- Heightened mental health problems
- The increasing sense of victimhood, anxiety, and lack of resilience among young people, as described in the book The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure
- The diffusion of communication platforms and the rapidity in which news is delivered.
The technological trends are:
- A growing authority-expertise gap: senior officials may longer have current expertise and, therefore, are not best-suited to make technical decisions
- The growing sophistication of armed threats (made possible by video games such as Call of Duty, which teach actual small-unit military tactics to kids in their basements)
- Omnipresent surveillance
- The digitization of society.
To the technology trends we should add another: accelerating implementation of technology is creating new jobs and making others obsolete.
These trends are also evident on our campuses. However, many of their expected impacts have been amplified due to the negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The feelings of uncertainty and vulnerability, coupled with the isolation imposed by lockdowns, were manifested in increases in suicides, insomnia, substance abuse, domestic violence, spiritual crises, and doubts about the ability of our governments to keep us safe.
Changes Could Have Unforeseeable Impacts
The trends identified above are having, and will continue to have, course-altering effects on American institutions of higher education. While the following effects can be analyzed individually, they are also likely to interact in unforeseeable ways. They are:
- Fewer students on campus: Higher education’s response to the COVID pandemic saw the cessation of in-person classes and the rise of alternate engines for the primary delivery of instruction, namely hybrid learning, virtual instruction via Zoom and other similar platforms, and an increase in distance learning. The overall result was fewer students, faculty, and staff on campus. When COVID restrictions receded, the former levels of in-person learning did not return to their original levels. There are fewer students and faculty on campuses than before the pandemic.
- Greater numbers of non-traditional students: Although many college students follow the familiar route of matriculating directly after high school graduation, many follow a less traditional route, arriving later in life. Some of these students arrive for career retooling as technology displaces traditional jobs. Others are retirees with time to pursue academic areas of interest or simply to keep their minds sharp in a dynamic social setting.
- Greater numbers of foreign students: America has always been an attractive destination for international students. However, increased immigration, both legal and undocumented, has significantly increased the number of foreign students on American campuses. According to the Higher Ed Immigration Portal, there are approximately 1.7 million first-generation immigrant students, a quarter of whom are undocumented. There are another 3.6 million second-generation immigrant students and another 915,000 “traditional” international students, up from 600,000 in 2001. These students, 80% of whom are persons of color, constitute approximately 30% of all college students in the United States.
Mental Health Issues Are at Epidemic Proportions
Even before the COVID pandemic, mental health issues on college campuses had reached “epidemic” proportions according to the National Institute of Mental Health. In the aftermath of the pandemic, the situation has worsened. The American College Health Association’s 2019 National College Health Assessment noted that college students transitioning to adulthood undergo significant challenges to mental health and wellbeing due to their immersion in new social structures, greater academic pressures, less familial support, etc. The Spring 2022 National College Health Assessment revealed the following disturbing statistics:
- 9% of students surveyed indicate high levels of loneliness (increased social media activity notwithstanding)
- Within the last 30 days of being surveyed, 29.5% (20% men and 32.2% women) indicated they were under high stress
- When the students experiencing moderate stress (46.2%) are added, the percentage of respondents under moderate to severe stress is 78.8%
- 75% of respondents considered themselves seriously (23.3%) or moderately (51.7%) psychologically distressed, for a total of 75%
- 9% indicated they had intentionally cut or injured themselves within the past 12 months.
These mental health challenges are not limited to students. The CDC notes that more than 50% of adults will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder within their lifetime. One in five Americans will experience a mental illness in a given year, and one in five children, either currently or at some point during their life, have had a seriously debilitating mental illness. Additionally, one in 25 Americans lives with a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression.
Modes of Communication Are Changing
As far as college students are concerned, email has gone the way of Facebook; it is no longer the communications medium of choice. The efficacy of traditional ways of communicating with students, such as email and printed media, has declined significantly. They have been replaced by social media, and social media has replaced television and broadcast news to become the primary source of news for young people.
Whether these new sources of social information have the same levels of objectivity and editorial rigor as other media is being debated, but there is little doubt that much of the news people hear is becoming less standard, more narrowly focused, and less subject to formal editorial standards.
Increased Sense of Victimhood and Lack of Resilience
In The Coddling of the American Mind, referenced above, the authors note we (parents and schools) no longer prepare the child for the road; we now attempt to prepare the road for the child. This change, which promotes a sense of victimhood, undermines self-reliance and personal accountability and, instead, requires institutions, especially schools, to play a more active role in insulating students from any social, political or economic development that makes one sad, uncertain, challenged or angry (i.e., “safetyism”).
Further, the authors posit many campus problems originate from the three “great untruths” that have become prominent in education: “What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker,” “always trust your feelings,” and “life is a battle between good people and evil people.”
The imposed isolation by the pandemic, fears of contagion, economic dislocations, increased use of social media (in which people tend to associate with like-minded people), and political division, which focuses more on how we are different (tribalism) than what we have in common (community) have changed campus culture. Speakers with different or unpopular views are shouted down or banned from campus because their words are equated with violence and people lacking resilience need to be protected from those with whom they disagree. People are evil by definition because their views may challenge popular wisdom.
Implications for College Campus Police and Security
Police enforce laws, which reflect traditional social values. Toward this end, law enforcement follows numerous practices now enshrined as traditions. However, there is a tension when traditions confront dynamic social changes. Inasmuch as societal changes affect campuses, one can expect the aforementioned campus developments to necessitate changes to campus policing. These changes will include new challenges and required changes in mission emphasis. The challenges and potential opportunities are:
Policing is essentially a conservative enterprise. Police enforce laws already on the books; they are not initiators of social change. Police are proponents of tradition, order, objectivity and fair treatment, discipline and self-control.
Compare these values to those describing the outlooks of “coddled” citizens. Even dismissing coddled values, coming of age on college campuses is about individual experimentation and new experiences. These diverge with the police mandate to maintain conformity and social order.
Additionally, many foreign and some domestic students have a negative and even fearful view of police. In my presentations, when I ask international students on campus, approximately 60-80% routinely indicate they consider police in their home countries to be corrupt, incompetent, uncaring, political, and/or willing instruments of oppression. These views and negative expectations are transferred to American officers. Hence, many students avoid voluntary interactions with campus police.
This unwillingness of campus citizens to interact with police has deleterious effects on campus safety and security. One is the serious impediment to the success of a “see something/say something” public safety strategy. In the absence of willing input from citizens, both the prevention of and response to crime is deficient.
Changes in the Number, Type of Calls for Service (CFS)
At first blush, fewer students on campus suggests fewer CFS… fewer traffic stops, fewer thefts, fewer assaults, fewer Title IX violation allegations, fewer lost and found calls, etc. However, welfare checks, response to all campus citizens (i.e., students, faculty and staff) with mental health issues, disagreements and protests about socio-political issues, and misunderstandings between people who don’t share the same language and cultural experiences are but a few of the issues that involve police.
Effective response will increasingly require empathetic communications skills, an understanding of mental health issues, cultural sensitivity, social issue awareness, approachability, and a mastery of the subtle line between law enforcement and policy enforcement.
Concerning the latter, for instance, police are often called to deal with disruptive students. However, a student disrupting class is a classroom management issue. Unless that student is endangering others, making explicit threats, or destroying school property, it is not a criminal matter. Police involvement may open officers to charges of denying a student’s free speech. Further, any removal of that student will likely be captured by students’ cell phones and appear within minutes on numerous social media platforms.
Officers are frequently called upon by faculty and staff to take non-law enforcement actions. Involvement of an armed officer in non-legal issues may open the officer, the department, and the college to significant liability.
Officer Recruitment, Retention, and Other Staffing Challenges
The popularity of policing has had its ups and downs. In the 1950s, we were the friends of lost children, in the late 1960s, we were the pigs. Following the 2001 terror attacks, we were heroes, and in the aftermath of several high-profile police shootings, police are accused of excessive brutality and/or racism. A negative public image, even though often unjustified, along with a younger, risk-averse, coddled, and/or diverse population undermines recruiting and retaining professional officers. It is not unusual to find police departments (and other law enforcement agencies) 10-25% understrength.
Staff shortages are even more difficult on college campuses where young officers want the excitement of the street rather than what they consider to be a staid campus environment. As a result, many young officers leave campus policing for municipal positions early in their careers.
This has two significant effects. First, given the $50,000-100,000 invested in each new hire who goes through an academy, failure to retain these officers is expensive. Many departments rely on local police retirees to increase staffing. With some exceptions, having already served a lengthy career, many retired officers are not looking to burn the house down or stay beyond a few years, necessitating an endless recruiting operation.
Also, while retirees expect campus positions to be less active and dangerous, they do not expect the rigors of Title IX, Clery, and VAWA requirements. Finally, some have trouble transitioning from the 80% – 20% protect-and-serve breakdown on the street to the 20% – 80% distribution on campus. The direct, commanding, and defensive interactions with dangerous citizens on the street do not play well on college campuses.
More Time for Police, Security Officer Virtual Training
The availability and quality of online training has exploded in the past five years. Whether sponsored by the local academy or a private vendor, online training allows an officer to remain on campus, thereby mitigating staffing issues discussed above. With fewer students on campus, officers are writing fewer reports, making fewer arrests, going to court less frequently, etc.
Easier access to training means officers may more easily stay abreast of new technologies, laws, and police procedurals while remaining on campus to answer unanticipated CFS and regular patrols. This officer development positively affects officer morale and, in turn, recruitment and retention.
So, now what?
If society and college campuses are changing, college police departments will (and must) change too. The questions are how, and in what direction? Here are six potential initiatives.
Reassess Your Campus Public Safety Department’s Priorities
The “Protect and Serve” mantra won’t cut it as a plan for adaptation to a dynamic environment. It is too broad. Further, protecting and serving are inputs; they are not outputs (i.e., goals). A department’s goals and priorities are not uniform; they reflect its size, recent history, the philosophy and experience of its chief, funding, the number of clients being served, and other factors.
However, before a department can make changes, it must tie each anticipated decision to whether it helps to achieve the agency’s prioritized goal(s). The following 12 goals, listed in no particular order and not constituting an exclusive list, go far beyond “protect and serve.” They tell us where we want to go before we select the means of travel.
- Improve safety and security on campus
- Officer safety
- Officer training and development
- Build a positive reputation on campus
- Effective police operations
- Timely response to calls for service
- Flexibility and adaptability to change
- Enhance the college brand
- Responsible financial stewardship
- Maintain good relationships with external agencies
- Avoid liability
- Officer morale
Remove the Blinders
Like large corporations and the military, most police departments with more than a handful of officers are hierarchically structured. The characteristics of hierarchy abound in police departments, both collegiate and municipal:
- a single leader, information flowing up with decisions flowing down, specialized functions and tasks (e.g., traffic, investigations, recruitment, SWAT, training)
- specialized information within these specific channels (e.g., SWAT and police recruiters do not receive or share the same information)
- requirements to “stay in one’s lane”
- decisions are based on costs and benefits
- personal responsibility and accountability are expected
- success (measured by some objective means) is required for upward mobility, and more.
This structure works well in an environment in which costs and benefits are known and expectations and services are stable. Its success makes change irrational and hence its members become risk averse. However, pyramid structures are not well-suited to handle dynamic environments requiring innovation and change. Some of the organizational traits required for innovation include:
- greater decision influence from those in the trenches rather than agency leaders who have decision authority but not necessarily current intelligence and expertise (i.e., the authority-expertise gap)
- communications among silos to develop integrated approaches to issue resolution
- freedom to operate outside strict cost/benefit accounting
- development of an environment and culture in which innovation is encouraged.
In short, decentralized organizations innovate better than ossified and tradition-bound hierarchies. The risk of innovation for a police chief is two-fold. First, it involves the necessity of freeing subordinates from overarching supervision and, as a result, a loss of the chief’s immediate control over operations. Second, because innovation involves changes in funding, access to the boss, influence within the organization, etc., it is generally resisted by the old guard.
As uncomfortable as it may be, an organization desiring to change to accommodate current change and anticipate future change must incorporate some of the decentralized elements noted above.
Lose the Law Enforcement ‘We-They’ Mentality
The Thin Blue Line is a wonderful source of pride, professionalism, and morale. However, we must ensure it does not generate a view among officers that we are separate from those we serve, and we cannot let it displace the emphasis on the service nature of our responsibilities. We must increase our approachability, engagement, and communication skills to provide maximum benefit to our citizens.
Officers should be trained in Verbal Judo and other conflict de-escalation techniques, crisis intervention, and cultural diversity that reflects current national and campus trends. Also, when possible, departments should strive to recruit candidates whose identities reflect the campus community.
Expand Your Police, Security Department’s Contributions
A campus provost once told me “students do not come to college to get arrested.” This statement suggests the police are only incidental to college operations. This should not be the case. Police can make important inputs in student discipline, IT, and camera policies, parking, HR, Clery and Title IX compliance, resident housing, emergency management, etc. We bring a different yet critical perspective to these areas.
Further, as “outsiders,” we have no ax to grind, so we may play a productive role as an arbiter in a diverse decision environment. Further, interaction with diverse college stakeholders allows us to assess the needs, perceptions, and priorities of our citizens. We should not limit ourselves to the traditional safety committees. We should participate in as many activities as we can. Our sober analyses can keep these groups on track, avoid nasty surprises for police, and overcome negative stereotypes of law enforcement as thuggish single dimension automatons.
With fewer campus calls for service and less emphasis on enforcement, budget-conscious campus administrators will inevitably ask why a sworn police department is needed and why staffing reductions consistent with reduced activity cannot be made. By becoming a “load-bearing” contributor to campus operations, we garner broad campus support and insulate ourselves from funding reductions and undeserved stereotypes.
Share Your Secrets
An officer once opined to me that we should not be explaining how and why police operate the way we do because the revelation of too much operational information would jeopardize officer safety. Clearly, there are secrets we should not share, but explanations of why we touch (to put our fingerprints on) taillights during traffic stops, the role of cover officers, commands we give to traffic violators, the role of the interview stance, etc. can have positive effects.
For instance, most traffic violators view traffic stops as inconvenient, delays, embarrassing, financially costly if fines are large or insurance rates go up, etc. They do not recognize traffic stops as one of the most dangerous things we do and that our actions are motivated by officer safety, not anger or biased considerations.
When citizens understand how and why we do certain things, our actions appear more reasonable and less arbitrary and personal. Most citizens think they understand what we do because they watch cop shows. We know their expertise is woefully deficient, but they don’t. Invite senior college administrators, faculty, and students to observe active incident response training or to “take a spin” in a firearms simulator. After shooting everything that moved in a simulator, the college’s second in command expressed heightened respect for the things we do, along with our dedication, professionalism, courage, and skill. This goodwill and understanding are money in the bank that can be withdrawn when things aren’t so rosy.
Extend a Helping Hand
Letting people experience the simulator or observe training is good, but it’s not a sustainable or systematic approach to explanation, understanding and service. An effective community outreach program, active on campus and off campus in the surrounding community, contains at a minimum the following elements:
- A comprehensive and up-to-date department website with points of contacts, FAQs, how to make complaints, etc.
- A monthly public safety newsletter
- Social media campaign
- Lecture program
- Club sponsorship
- Sponsoring international students
- Coaching and mentorship
- Attending various college events (e.g., sporting events, plays, recitals)
These activities make the police more than an incidental part of the college and the community. They also allow us to become an integral part of the campus education process. Our unique contributions improve student education, enhance our stature and respect, heighten morale among officers who see their positive current and long-lived impacts on young people, and reduce citizen complaints by enhancing both their understanding of what we do and their recognition of officers’ professionalism, approachability, intelligence, and commitment to the college and community.
Be Flexible and Innovative
Dynamic social and collegiate environments present difficult and stressful challenges to college police departments. The failure of leaders to embrace a future vision condemns agencies to inexorable and certain irrelevance. A commitment to flexibility and innovation provides an opportunity to improve our performance, revitalize our officers, heighten respect for law enforcement (both now and in the future), support officer morale, and better serve our campuses.
The juice is definitely worth the squeeze!
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