Commentary

For Safety's Sake, Get Rid of Campus Cops

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

October 08, 2014

Earlier this week, the University of Florida suspended its backup quarterback after a female student accused him of sexually assaulting her on the campus. In another high-profile case, it was reported late last month that the suspect in the possible abduction of a missing University of Virginia student had twice earlier been accused of sexually assaulting students at separate colleges.

Few allegations are more serious than those of rape and sexual assault. Police have to conduct interviews, collect evidence, and decide whether probable cause exists for a person to be arrested, charged, and prosecuted. Because the behavior that led to the complaint often occurs in private, involves alcohol or drugs, and relies on differing interpretations of consent, even the low legal standard of "probable cause" is sometimes difficult to achieve.

Overlooked in the debate about whether colleges are pursuing sexual-assault allegations seriously enough, however, is the fact that college police departments are often responsible for investigating crimes that occur on, and sometimes even off, the campus. No other American institution enjoys the power to create and maintain a police force. Not even Fortune 500 companies or your local public high schools have the legal authority to create their own standing police departments, with full arrest powers and a slew of weapons, even armored personnel carriers.

That is a problem, because campus police departments are under the immediate control or influence of college administrators. This relationship compromises the hallmark principles of American jurisprudence: objectivity, fairness, impartiality, due process, and, most important, freedom from political interference in matters of law enforcement.

In fact, some of the biggest changes in American policing have been those dislodging police departments from the corrupting influence of political control. Yet on American campuses, political control of campus police departments—control often extended to presidents, provosts, even deans—is normal and expected.

During the "political era" of American policing, political machines of both parties dictated policing practices. Similarly, an inherent conflict of interest occurs when college representatives—whose goals are often in conflict with those of the police agencies they control—influence the practices of campus police departments, their goals, and their decisions. This relationship taints virtually all high-profile cases, as well as cases that never make the news. Because of this inherent conflict of interest and because of the problems associated with colleges’ creating a parallel system of policing, we argue for the disbanding of college police departments across the United States.

There are three reasons for taking such a step. First, as we have mentioned, is the inherent conflict of interest involved in having college administrators influence police decision-making. As history has proven, some administrators will exercise direct influence over the campus police force, pushing it to make arrests or to not make arrests. The savvy administrator, however, can use other means to exert influence, including threats to reduce budgets or to terminate leaders and offers of rewards such as bonuses, funds to hire more officers, or approval to purchase new equipment.

Second, campus police officers are used to enforce not laws but college-specific policies. Infractions of those policies can result in arrest and prosecution. At the University of Cincinnati, for example, the campus police enforced an administrative rule that limited "free speech" to an area representing less than 1 percent of the total campus—and even then only with the approval of campus bureaucrats. Violators faced arrest. Similar rules exist on campuses across the country. Cincinnati’s policy was eventually nullified in federal court as a result of a lawsuit by a libertarian group.

Third, while students may face arrest for violating college policies—what we term overpolicing—just the opposite may also occur. That is, underpolicing. For example, if a large group of college-age residents held a block party in an inner-city neighborhood, with obvious underage drinking, drug use, assault, and lewd sexual behavior, the local police would break up the party and make arrests. If it were held on a campus, we would call it a frat party. The campus police, moreover, would very likely help to control the party, forcing underage violators to pour out their drinks and ensure that nobody drove to the store for another keg of beer.

Colleges can never shake questions concerning the legitimacy of criminal investigations, especially in high-profile cases where conflicting goals are at stake. Moreover, colleges have created a dual system of justice, designed not by a legislature but by unelected administrators who are not accountable to the public. This system of justice, separate and unequal, leads to highly disparate and sometimes discriminatory treatment of individuals.

Colleges should divest themselves of all matters criminal. These include investigations of campus crimes, arrests, and subsequent prosecution. If a crime occurs at Google, Microsoft, or Starbucks, the police are called. They investigate the incident and decide on the appropriate response. Local, state, and federal authorities, moreover, are not beholden to the whims of Google managers, Microsoft supervisors, or Starbucks baristas.

One way to make this transition happen is to transfer campus police officers to the agencies that already have jurisdiction. In most circumstances, that would involve local police agencies. Those agencies already have specialized subdivisions, such as narcotics or vice. Colleges could require that the agency receiving their officers establish a special division for the campus. Moreover, colleges could subsidize the cost of those officers, so the tax burden to towns and cities would be minimized.

Divested of their criminal-justice obligations, colleges should focus instead on safety and security. Safety-and-security officers cost less than do armed police officers, allowing an increase in the number of people dedicated to campus safety. This arrangement would also allow for increased surveillance and monitoring of the campus, especially in places not typically under the supervision of police officers, such as dormitories. These campus officers could be focused on public service, directing traffic, notifying the police if necessary, and solving problems before they escalate into criminal incidents.

Our last recommendation is for students and faculty and staff members across the United States: If you are raped, assaulted, or otherwise victimized, call your local police department. It is least influenced by college politics. You wouldn’t, after all, want a provost with a background in English literature, or an assistant athletic director, influencing whether or not the police arrested the criminal who violated you.

John Paul Wright is a professor in the School of Criminal Justice at the University of Cincinnati. Kevin M. Beaver is a professor in the College of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida State University.