6 Ways Campus Cops Are Becoming More Like Regular Police

Campus police can do everything from arrest civilians to work with government defense agencies

Many campus police officers can make arrests and carry guns. Credit: Don Bartletti/LATimes/Getty

Despite increased coverage of policing issues lately, the growing powers of campus police departments, both public and private, have largely remained under the radar.

From arresting civilians to working with government defense agencies to playing a role in gentrification, university police departments are becoming more and more like municipal departments, often without the public's knowledge.

For instance, as municipal police forces have militarized, so too have departments at public universities and colleges. In a recently released White House document on new municipal police weapons bans, the University of Texas police department is cited for its model policy on when and how to deploy its emergency rescue armored personnel vehicle.

And as the private policing industry (i.e., "rent-a-cops") has exploded – now outnumbering public officers two-to-one worldwide – private campus forces have expanded their numbers, their jurisdictions and their powers.

Institutions of higher education are increasingly modeling themselves after corporations, and campus security has become not only a sales pitch to parents, but to anyone investing in the universities' interests, whether they be board members or executives considering bringing their businesses to university towns and neighborhoods.

Of course it's important to value the protection of young people receiving their education. But we must also be aware of campus police officers' practices.

1. Militarization

On May 18, President Obama announced that federal agencies will no longer be allowed to offload or sell certain military-grade gear – including some armored vehicles, grenade launchers and weaponized aircraft – to local police departments through the Pentagon's 1033 program. This practice has existed informally since the Eighties, and was ratified in the Nineties with the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act, but the value of tactical items distributed has spiked over the past five years. So far, there's been no mention of police departments having to give these banned supplies back to the federal government, and agencies can still purchase new equipment of the caliber that's now banned through the Homeland Security Department's grant initiative, which, according to journalist Radley Balko, "now dwarfs the 1033 Program."

Campus police operating at public universities are among the recipients of military gear through the same channels that furnish municipal police departments. In August, the public interest website Muckrock published lists of every item distributed to local law enforcement programs over the previous two years. The documents, obtained through FOIA requests, revealed that more than 100 campus police forces have received military materials from the Pentagon. These transfers include everything from two pairs of overalls (California's El Camino College Police Department) to a mine-resistant vehicle worth nearly $750,000 (the University of Texas System Police).

Colleges and universities can also apply for Homeland Security grants. Both UC Berkeley and Ohio State University, for example, applied to purchase armored trucks in the past three years. (Only the latter was successful.)

In addition, various campus police forces have undergone SWAT training – a hallmark of police militarization – since 2007. UC Berkeley and West Texas A&M have even hosted SWAT training conventions in partnership with local police departments.

2. Making arrests, carrying guns

Most campus police at public colleges and universities have all the powers of a sworn officer, including when it comes to making arrests.

There is no comprehensive study on how many arrests campus police actually make, but we know from news stories and university crime logs that campus police do indeed arrests students, community members and even university employees and faculty with some frequency.

Many university officers also carry weapons. According to Bureau of Justice Statistics data from 2011-2012 (the most recent available), the vast majority (94 percent) of campus officers, both public and private, are authorized to use a sidearm, pepper spray and batons.

Earlier this month, the campus police department at the University of Rhode Island announced it would begin arming its officers. According to the Associated Press, URI was the last public university in the country to arm its police.

3. A lack of transparency

We know private university police carry guns and make stops and arrests. But since they don't have to disclose that information or even their department guidelines – and they rarely do – we don't know the full extent of their powers. These campus police have the same privacy protections – from the Freedom of Information Act, for example – as any other private police force (or citizen), in some cases with the powers of a municipal officer.

Just last month, the Illinois House passed a bill, which will now go to the Senate, requiring transparency from private campus police in the state. Such departments are still not subject to FOIA, but they must release traffic stop and arrest details, crime data, directives and communications upon request. The University of Chicago announced in April, ahead of the bill's passage, that it will begin releasing stop and arrest data.

Currently, only Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia require private campus police to release certain records to the public.

4. Policing citizens not affiliated with the university

The Illinois legislation was prompted in large part by years of student and community organizing to reform the University of Chicago police department. Over the last decade, the UCPD has grown, not just in number of officers but also in jurisdiction area. Under Illinois' Private College Campus Police Act, the UCPD is allowed to expand its jurisdiction to protect the "interests of the college or university," which the university has enabled by opening a series of neighborhood charters schools. The UCPD now polices some 65,000 Chicago residents, 50,000 of whom are not university-affiliated.

This story is not unique. Private campus police forces around the country are expanding their jurisdictions, bringing the issue of law enforcement transparency to the fore. For example, Tulane University's police force recently expanded its jurisdiction to include a one-mile radius around the New Orleans campus.

In 2013, plans to expand a series of campus police jurisdictions in Washington, D.C., sparked controversy, especially at George Washington University's Foggy Bottom campus. That same year, the campus newspaper had discovered through FOIA requests (in D.C., municipal police regulate private police commissions) that the police had improperly detained three students the previous year, and had been knocking on the doors of private off-campus residences.

"The real problem is if the university gives security officers power off-campus to treat students differently than other citizens," Art Pitzer, chief legal counsel for the Washington chapter of the ACLU, told The Washington Post at the time.

Around 90 percent of sworn campus police officers patrol jurisdictions outside of campus boundaries, according to the most recent Bureau of Justice Statistics data. According to the same report, 20 percent of private campus police employed by universities with between 2,500 and 5,000 students, and 36 percent of their public university counterparts, have statewide jurisdiction, meaning they can exercise full municipal police powers across the state, but may voluntarily restrict themselves to a region on and around campus.

5. Working with local police and government agencies

Campus police often work closely with local officials through an arrangement known as a memorandum of understanding, through which the departments agree to cooperate with and bolster one another's efforts. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 70 percent of law enforcement agencies have memoranda of understanding or other formal written agreements with state or local law enforcement agencies.

Campus police forces across the country also work with government intelligence and defense agencies, just like municipal forces do. In 2009, the FBI unveiled its post-9/11 role in campus public safety. According to the agency's website, the FBI works closely with some 30,000 safety officers at 4,200 colleges and universities. Through its Campus Liaison Initiative, an FBI agent mentors campus officers, providing terrorism-readiness trainings and information sessions. Free speech advocates like the ACLU of Massachusetts worry this flow of information from campus police officers to the FBI has the potential to chill speech in and around institutions that proclaim they stand for just the opposite.

The numbers above include some private universities, which raises addition privacy and transparency concerns, since such police forces need not disclose information about these partnerships, regardless of whether they patrol individuals who are not university affiliated.

There may be good reason for some campus police departments to have relationships with other police forces and government agencies. But given that we don't know the full extent of private universities' relationship with the FBI, and we do know that some municipal police departments have engaged in civil rights abuses, these partnerships merit greater scrutiny.

6. Playing a role in gentrification

From New York to Los Angeles to San Francisco, it's been shown how municipal police often help "clean up" gentrifying neighborhoods by effectively criminalizing the individuals who are in the process of being displaced by developers, through, for instance, discriminatory "Broken Windows" policing practices.

Campus police sometimes play a role in gentrification too. For example, in Detroit, Wayne State University police have become active in nurturing the renascent medical and culture districts surrounding the school, now called Midtown.

According to a New York Times article from February, which identifies the Wayne State police force as a major catalyst in the redevelopment of Midtown, "This is no ordinary campus police squad. The department, which spends most of its time operating beyond the university, has invested in high-tech security equipment that looks as if it came straight from the set of 'C.S.I.'" The article goes on to report that 61 percent of all arrests in Midtown last year were made by the campus police.

The Wayne State student body is 20 percent black and 60 percent white. The racial demographics of Midtown have become nearly the reverse; in 2010, 21 percent of its residents were white and 68 percent of its residents were black, down from 73 percent in 2000.

Dave Scott, a lieutenant who's been with the Wayne State Police Department for 39 years, tells Rolling Stone that the force makes arrests for "anything from car jacking to armed robbery to misdemeanor traffic stops. We're just like any other precinct in the city."

Scott says his department patrols 5.5 square miles, which includes the areas around all of the university's satellite buildings. "This [area] is where the greatest concentration of Wayne State people are in the city of Detroit. But you don't have to be Wayne-state affiliated to call us," he says.

Scott also told Rolling Stone over email that the Wayne State Police "patterned some of our Community Policing and 'broken windows management' style of policing after the Community Policing model developed in Flint, Michigan" – a 1979 model involving increased foot patrol beats in poor neighborhoods.