The Dispositions of Effective College Public Safety Officers

Campus police officers possess different qualities than their traditional counterparts, including empathy and the ability to think outside of the box.

High turnover is a common problem for many university police departments. We have all heard the typical reasons why officers leave campus policing to join traditional police departments – higher pay, more opportunities for diverse assignments and the perception (or misperception) that the officer will be recognized as “a real police officer.” However, what I have come to realize after nearly 20 years of university policing is that officers usually leave because, simply put, they were just ineffective in the higher education environment.

These officers failed to successfully engage the community and ultimately left to seek employment with a department that was better suited to their policing style. They were not bad police officers or horrible people. They perhaps did not have the dispositions to be effective police officers on a college campus.

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I recently conducted a study to determine if effective university police officers differ from less effective ones based on their dispositions. The term “disposition” refers to an individual’s perceptions, attitudes or core beliefs regarding the world and the people and things in it. By determining that effective university police officers possess specific dispositions, strategies can be developed to identify these qualities in candidates during the hiring process. This could lead to the hiring of effective university officers who are more likely to become engaged in the campus community and ultimately improve the organization’s overall effectiveness.

University Policing is a Helping Profession
University police departments historically have worked hard to mirror traditional law enforcement agencies, but the research tells us that the role of the campus police officer is in fact different than our traditional counterparts. Although we do act as a law enforcer and protector, we’re expected to provide much more to our communities. We are educators, advisers, mentors, coaches, social workers, counselors and so on. The helping professions research has typically focused on professions such as counselors, therapists, teachers, nurses and pastors. It wasn’t until my study that police at institutions of higher education could be empirically included on this list.

A professional helper can be viewed as an individual who serves in a preventive function, identifies strengths and weaknesses, and proactively assists others from getting themselves into difficulties. This definition of a helping professional closely resembles the underlying philosophy of the community oriented policing model that most university police departments have adopted.

In order for a university police officer to be effective they must successfully and consistently balance the appropriate enforcement of the law and the principles associated with the community oriented policing philosophy (service, education/crime prevention, building partnerships, problem solving). This enables the officer to contribute to student success and advance the overall mission of the university. Personal beliefs and perceptions (i.e., dispositions) are a significant contributor to an officer’s ability to succeed at this. The dispositions associated with effectiveness are what allow police officers (with strong content knowledge and police skill) to excel in this profession.

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Most campus police departments require their staff to perform “quality of life” services, such as helping students who are locked out of their residence hall room, vehicle battery jumps, assisting with disabled vehicles by other means and safety escorts. If the expectation is that officers routinely and effectively perform these helping services, why not hire individuals who are best suited to perform these services? They should not only want to, but enjoy performing these services.

Dispositions Associated with Campus Police Officer Effectiveness
Effective and less effective university police officer dispositions do in fact differ. Effective officers possess four key dimensions of dispositions associated with effectiveness. In turn, less effective officers were lacking these dimensions.

First, effective campus officers have the ability to put themselves in others shoes and feel empathy for those they are helping. Effective officers are always concerned about how things look from the point of view of those they are helping. Less effective officers, on the contrary, are only concerned with how things look to themselves.

Secondly, an effective university police officer is capable of building good relationships with students and those they serve. They believe in others’ worth and that others have the capacity to solve their own issues. Less effective public safety personnel would view all college students as trouble makers. The reality is that only a small percentage of the overall student population actually causes problems on campus.

Next, effective university officers believe that they are in their jobs because it is their calling. They understand the big picture and overall mission of the department and university.

Finally, people always come first. Effective university police officers have the ability to think outside the box, and are driven by the human aspects of the situation, not the procedural aspects. They don’t believe in a single “right” method or approach but rather understand the best method is the one most fitting for the particular person or situation.

Jason G. Willis, Ed.D is Northern Kentucky University’s chief of police.

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