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Sexual abuse can be found in any profession, but campus-police officers are uniquely situated: They have powers of detention and arrest, weapons, access to sensitive information and vulnerable people, and unusual job protection. Sexually abusive behavior by campus-police officers is typically reported individually and in isolation. When taken together, however, a pattern of harm emerges.
Many departments keep private records, so it can be difficult even to assess the full scope of the abuse. Despite this, there are still a shocking number of serious incidents in the public record. These cases are a direct result of the way that campus forces are structured.
While often thought of as rent-a-cops, many campus-police forces are actually full-service departments staffed by armed officers with powers of arrest both on and off campus. They are tasked with enforcing both school rules and state law, giving them significant power over students’ educational status and their permanent criminal record. And as they have professionalized over the past 60 years, many forces have come to report directly to the provost or university president, shielding them from student and faculty oversight.
It is incredibly difficult for students to report sexual violence committed by the people who are in charge of investigating such claims. A University of California at Santa Barbara student reported that the UCSB chief, James Brock, “grabbed her buttocks, slid his hand up her back and whispered in her ear” in August 2019. She resigned from her two on-campus jobs because they were in areas where Brock patrolled. “It’s still a constant source of fear for me,” she told the college newspaper, “seeing anyone else from UCPD because they all work under him and no one’s done anything about it.” Following a 255-day-long Title IX investigation, the university appears not to have sanctioned Brock. (According to a university spokesperson, “multiple investigations did not substantiate the allegations.”)
The problems with the campus police are apparent to anyone willing to look.
In August, a former employee of the Central Connecticut State University campus police received a $1.75 million settlement after reporting that another officer on the force raped her three times. The officer accused of rape was subsequently fired, but the reported abuse was more pervasive than the actions of one person. She described “an environment in its police department where sexual harassment and even sexual assault was the norm” and where officers sexually harassed undergraduate students.
Some campus officers take advantage of their access to vulnerable students. A former Frostburg State University student named Amber Haning detailed how, in 2009, a campus officer picked her up in his squad car while she — then a first-year student — was inebriated. She said he took her “to some dark spot about a mile from campus. I didn’t know the area back then, so I had no idea where I was or how I would get back drunk and lost in the snow in the middle of the night. He unzipped his pants, and when I asked what he was doing, he asked if I wanted a ride home. He was wearing a gun and I was scared, so I did what I thought I had to do.” The officer eventually resigned from the force.
In the fall of 2018, Lauren McCluskey, a student at the University of Utah, reported to the campus police that her ex-boyfriend, Melvin Rowland, was stalking and blackmailing her with intimate photos. The campus officer assigned to her case, Miguel Deras, saved these photos to his phone, showed them to another officer, and reportedly “bragged about getting to look at them whenever he wanted.” Not only did the campus police egregiously violate McCluskey’s privacy — they also disregarded her repeated requests for help. Hours before she was killed by Rowland, McCluskey alerted Deras to an alarming message she had received. Deras failed to pass this information up the chain of command.
McCluskey’s case embodies two of the biggest fears sexual-assault victims have about reporting to the police: first, that their intimate personal photos might be ogled and joked about by officers, and second, that the often humiliating process of reporting still won’t be enough to protect them.
These cases — a sampling of the fraction that have been made public — only scratch the surface.
In a similar case, a Central Oregon Community College security officer, Edwin Lara, was allowed to stay on the force even though his behavior and “fascination with dead bodies” was “so alarming that one female cadet refused to ride in the same car as him,” a local news outlet reported. In 2016 he received a life sentence after he kidnapped, raped, and killed a student named Kaylee Sawyer, using his “patrol car equipped with a cage and doors that wouldn’t open from the inside.”
A deeply ingrained protectionist culture is also at play when campus police officers cover up or ignore reports of sexually violent behavior by their officers. In 2006, the Florida Atlantic University campus police hired Jimmy Dac Ho after the Broward Sheriff’s Office fired him for abusing his wife. At FAU he reportedly made lewd comments and sent harassing texts to both women students and staff. Despite 14 written complaints about a range of disturbing behavior, he was disciplined just once. He remained on the force until 2011, when he used police equipment to kidnap and murder Sheri Carter and was sentenced to life in prison.
Officers are emboldened by the knowledge that strong campus-police unions can protect them. The police union representing the members of the Florida International University campus force successfully kept an officer, Frederick Currie, on the force after multiple incidents of domestic violence and child abuse. Then, while on duty in 2005, he reportedly ordered two teenagers to exit their car, “groped the young woman, touching her genitals and exposing her breasts … [and] forced the girl’s boyfriend to drop his pants and watch.” (Currie received a 10-year prison sentence.)
These cases — a sampling of the fraction that have been made public — only scratch the surface. Such incidents are not the result of a few proverbial bad apples, but rather constitute a pattern of gender-based violence. Colleges spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year on their campus police forces even as many academic departments and social services undergo severe budget cuts. These costs do not include the millions more spent settling civil suits against the campus police.
The threat of gender-based violence is often cited as a reason to invest in campus security. However, many survivors of sexual and intimate-partner violence are part of the rising number of students calling for campus-police abolition, informed by their own experience of being harmed or failed by campus police officers, as well as the systemic anti-Black racism and killings of students and local residents by campus officers.
A student group at the University of Utah called unsafeU held several protests following Lauren McCluskey’s death. They watched as the campus-police department continued to fail victims of intimate-partner violence, no matter how many committees, external reviews, and overhauls of leadership were used to reform the department. UnsafeU is now calling for the abolition of the campus force, while imagining trauma-informed alternatives that are designed to meet victims’ needs and prevent future harm.
As decades of examples have shown, the standard responses to campus-police misconduct do not meaningfully address the problem. Sensitivity training, hiring more women, background checks, and external reviews have all been tried, and have all failed. Universities must move beyond the endless cycle of committees and superficial reforms. The problems with the campus police are already apparent to anyone willing to look, and gender-based violence by campus officers is an important part of the case for abolition. An honest reckoning with the campus police is long overdue.