Fatal shootings involving campus police officers, like the one in Cincinnati, are unusual. But gunfire is not. And as the lines blur between on- and off-campus life – at some schools, most students live off-campus, while at others, the campus may function almost like a small city plunked in the midst of a rural area – it can be difficult for college officials to decide where to draw boundaries.
“I don’t think it’s straightforward at all,” for them, said Robin Hattersley, executive editor of Campus Safety Magazine. Colleges are so deeply enmeshed in the surrounding community, often with considerable tensions between the university and the rest of the population, “it’s very challenging. Colleges often find it necessary to manage not only their physical campus, but their surroundings.”
Students and parents may have an expectation that the school will keep them safe from external threats, while the outside community often expects the university to keep student behavior, even off campus, in check.
Many states are now allowing people to carry weapons on campus, Hattersley noted. And tragedies like the mass shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007 transformed the way people think about risks on campus.
S. Daniel Carter, director of a campus safety initiative that is part of the VTV Family Outreach Foundation, formed after the 2007 Virginia Tech campus shootings, said he believes campus safety has never been more discussed than it is now. But he thinks people have the wrong idea about it.
“I think campus policing is widely misunderstood,” Carter said. “Many people think of them not as real police, dealing with inconsequential matters. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Carter said that many campus police officers are sworn officers, and in colleges with sworn officers, more than 90 percent have officers who are armed.
“Many of them are career campus police officers,” Carter said. “It used to be a hodge-podge, officers on the way up, officers on the way to retirement. I think many people don’t appreciate just how important a role they have.”
The movement toward sworn, professional campus public safety agencies is not new. According to the BJS survey, two-thirds of the more than 900 U.S. four-year colleges and universities with 2,500 or more students use sworn police officers to provide law enforcement services. More than nine in 10 public colleges and universities used sworn officers, the Justice Department found.
These sworn officers undergo the same training as their local or county counterparts. Sworn police officers have full arrest powers granted by a state or local authority.
“We have the same training, the same continuous training, the same background standards,” as other police agencies, said William F. Taylor, chief of police at San Jacinto College in Texas and president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators. He said he was disheartened after seeing video of the incident involving the University of Cincinnati officer.
“Not what I see in the officers I hire,” Taylor said. “I feel so terrible for the family,” he said, referring to Samuel Dubose, 43, who was shot and killed during a July 19 traffic stop by Officer Raymond Tensing.
The prosecutor who announced the charges against Tensing said university police should not be on patrol, something that could be handled by Cincinnati city police. “I don’t think a university should be in the policing business,” Hamilton County prosecutor Joe Deters said Wednesday.
Santa J. Ono, president of the university, said that he thought the force could be improved, rather than disbanded. University officials had already announced since the shooting that they will bring in an outside investigator to review the department’s policies and procedures. Last week, owing to concerns about the Cincinnati shooting taking place off-campus, the school said its officers would only patrol and make traffic stops on the campus.
Taylor said that the Cincinnati shooting should not taint all campus police, who protect more than 17 million college and university students nationwide.
“I would hate the idea of the actions of a single police officer at a single institution, on a particular day, broad-brushing the entire campus law enforcement. You know what I mean?” he said. “It’s an isolated, singular incident.”
Fatal shootings by campus police, Taylor said, are very rare.
Taylor said the modern campus police force began taking shape in the late 1960s and early 1970s at the height of student unrest during the Vietnam War.
He said campus police need to be armed because, in addition to dealing with students and faculty, “they deal with whoever else wanders onto the campus. You notice, most campuses don’t have walls and fences. Anything that can happen anywhere in the community can happen on a campus.”
Taylor said that many universities have become more engaged in recent times in surrounding communities, often because the schools have bought property in adjacent neighborhoods or because of heavy student and faculty presence there. That has led to expanded university police patrols in some cities on the periphery of campuses. He said that city police often appreciate the help.
“No one would cast aspersions on municipal police departments because one officer engaged in alleged misconduct,” said Carter, of the Virginia Tech Victims foundation. “Taking away campus police departments that provide very specialized services to communities that they know would be very dangerous, in my estimation.”
Traffic stops are one of the most common and routine duties of a campus officer, just as with any agency, Carter said. “Just like with any police department, there are some aspects of it that may seem day-to-day but they can turn very challenging, threatening and tragic in an instant.
“You don’t know if at the next traffic stop the person is going to pull a gun on you. Obviously the reverse happened at the University of Cincinnati. But the officers don’t know that.”
In the nation’s capital, most university police do not carry firearms. The only two D.C. universities with armed police are Howard and the public University of the District of Columbia, said Sally Kram, director of governmental and public affairs for the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area.
Unlike many areas, Kram said university police in D.C. are only authorized to patrol on campuses.
Kram said she cannot recall any incidents in the past two decades in which a campus police officer fatally shot someone in the District.
But elsewhere, fatal shootings on or near campus involving college police do happen. Last month, for example, the New York Daily News reported that a state police trooper shot a man who Boston University police had approached; the man appeared to be threatening them with a knife.
In May, prosecutors announced that there would be no charges filed after a San Antonio University officer fatally shot a man who refused to put down a saw, even after being Tased, according to ABC7 News.
Last spring, Columbus State University officers shot and killed a man who was seen loading a gun near a campus complex where more than 400 students live, according to the school.