Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Christopher Moraff. He is a freelance journalist covering policing, criminal justice policy and civil liberties for Al Jazeera America, Nextcity.org and other media outlets. He was a 2014 H.F. Guggenheim reporting fellow at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Follow him on Twitter: @
Last month the libertarian site ReasonTV profiled the case of Andrew Sadek, a 20-year-old student at North Dakota State College of Science who turned up dead of a gunshot to the head in 2014. Sadek had been working as a confidential informant for a shadowy multi-county drug task force with ties to his campus police department.
About a year before his death, Sadek became ensnared in law enforcement’s version of a pyramid scheme. He was caught selling $80 worth of marijuana on campus to an informant who was also seeking leniency from the task force. Sadek in turn was instructed to make five small pot purchases from other unsuspecting dealers to clear his name. He managed to make three before he disappeared.
Sadek’s story resonated with me. In 2012, a close family friend (whom I’ll call Tim) was detained by campus police at the large Midwestern university where he was a sophomore and threatened with felony drug charges. Like a lot of kids his age, Tim had been peddling a little pot to friends to subsidize his own personal use. He was hardly a kingpin; but in his naivete he sold to the wrong person, got robbed and was forced to explain his ordeal to a veteran campus detective who was convinced he’d been handed the key to breaking open the school’s drug trade.
The police didn’t recover any drugs from Tim’s dorm room, but that didn’t stop them from sucking him into the informant system. For several weeks, the lead detective pressured Tim to make controlled-drug purchases from his off-campus pot supplier, using threats of expulsion and jail time as leverage. When Tim said he wanted to consult an attorney, the officer told him that if he did, the deal was off. Far from home and without the street sense to see through the detective’s bluff, Tim reluctantly agreed to serve as an informant.
Then he made a decision that might have saved his life. He decided to call his parents. They hired an attorney, who promptly broke off all communication between Tim and the detective. In the end, Tim got off with a misdemeanor paraphernalia charge and a slap on the wrist from the university. He graduated with honors the next year and was accepted into graduate school at a prestigious engineering university.
Tim’s and Sadek’s stories are similar, but they’re hardly unique. Under pressure from administrators, parents and local law enforcement, campus police departments have been quietly expanding their scope and reach to engage in more proactive crime-fighting. In some cases that means using low-level drug offenders to conduct potentially dangerous undercover stings. But it also includes other intelligence and investigatory activities that fall well outside the traditional purview of a campus police department.
Evidence of such mission creep was on display last week in Nashville, where more than 500 law enforcement officials representing 239 institutions gathered for the annual conference of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators (IACLEA). This year’s conference — which lists the scandal-ridden global security monolith G4S as one of its corporate sponsors — included presentations on counter-terrorism strategy, sex crimes investigation, tips for handling an active shooter, and, perhaps most telling, strategies for policing student behavior off-campus.
The agenda reflects an ever-expanding role for campus police and, due to the blurring lines between public and private authority, poses a threat to due process. In fact, it’s difficult to say just how much campus police agencies are expanding their reach, due to another problem: Journalists and civil liberties advocates who have tried to dig into the issue have been stymied by a culture of secrecy and state laws that protect private entities from public scrutiny. In some cases, these police agencies are “public” enough to be empowered to make arrests, conduct searches and use lethal force but are “private” enough to be exempt from public records laws.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), there are currently at least 861 campus law enforcement agencies serving schools with 2,500 or more students. Their authority comes from more than 40 state laws, which can vary widely in scope.
“[T]he jurisdiction of campus police officers is difficult to ascertain and untangle,” says attorney Jamie P. Hopkins, who looked into campus policing last year for the Montana Law Review.
In the past, laws governing campus police required officers to be sworn and to pass minimum training requirements before they were given full arrest powers. Even then, they could exercise those powers only while on duty and within the boundaries of the college property. Non-sworn officers were either deputized by local police agencies or weren’t given arrest powers. These boundaries have gradually eroded over the years. According to BJS, more than 70 percent of college and university police agencies now exercise off-campus jurisdiction, and 35 percent have policing powers that extend statewide.
Many of these new powers are established through “mutual aid agreements” with state and local police forces – which have increased considerably over the past decade, often with encouragement from the Department of Justice. Others have been created by amendments to existing statutes.
For the past two years, for example, community groups in Washington have been scrutinizing a push by George Washington University and several other area colleges to get the city council to give campus cops jurisdiction even when they aren’t on campus. A similar bill in 2002 died before a vote due to concerns over accountability. Local leaders say the current proposal still lacks sufficient protections for transparency and officer training requirements.
“I’m extremely skeptical that in the current climate of police-community relations nationwide it makes sense to empower private police forces, who don’t operate by the same standards of transparency and accountability as public departments, to perform public safety functions,” says Patrick Kennedy, chairman of the the Advisory Neighborhood Commission in D.C.’s Foggy Bottom and West End neighborhoods. “I think the prospect of them operating in the community opens the door to problems of profiling and abuse-of-power.”
But the openness of the process in the District is unusual. More often these kinds of legislative changes are made at the state level and with little public debate. Since 2009, for example, campus police in Florida have been allowed to arrest suspects within 1,000 feet of their property boundaries and are permitted to exceed that if they are in “hot pursuit.” Under a 2005 North Carolina law, campus police officers are given off-campus jurisdiction over “any other real property while in continuous and immediate pursuit of a person for an offense committed.” And a bill under consideration in Pennsylvania would give campus police at 14 state universities arrest powers along roads and highways adjacent to their schools.
Even in states that have not expanded campus police powers, Hopkins writes in his article, “[T]he property and premises covered by the statute may be difficult to determine” because of vague statutory language. This has led to a number of court challenges over the years, and most have sided with the colleges and universities, thus expanding the power and jurisdiction of campus cops.
“The public needs to pay attention to what the legislative branch is doing in our states, especially when it comes to police powers that impact our children, colleges, and universities,” Hopkins says. “These young adults need the same rights and privileges that all Americans enjoy.”
That’s not a given under current law, which makes inconsistent distinctions between state and private actors. For instance, while judges have generally ruled that suspects detained by state campus police have a right to due process, most courts have also acknowledged that non-state-sanctioned entities are absolved from heeding constitutional protections such as those granted by the Fourth Amendment if their actions are in furtherance of a private interest.
This is particularly problematic in light of the increased pressure on colleges and universities to adopt a more proactive crime-fighting stance. A case in point: Last November, in a move one attorney described as unprecedented, campus police at William Paterson University in New Jersey decided to investigate and file their own charges against five students accused of sexual assault rather than first consult county prosecutors. The five were arraigned on $200,000 bail and were barred from attending class before county officials even had a chance to review the case.
In January, the District Attorney of Passaic County refused to prosecute the students after a grand jury found insufficient evidence of a crime. Attorney Laura Sutnick, who defended one of the students, said William Paterson police lacked the “judgement and experience” to adequately investigate the case, and she took campus officials to task for failing to loop in county investigators from the start.
“Sex crimes cases are so sensitive it really takes someone who is skilled in those issues,” she says. “These were kids, many of whom were going to college on scholarship money, and their school decided that they were going to rush to judgement and file charges rather than wait five minutes and get the facts.”
Sutnick said the notion that there is a nationwide epidemic of campus sexual assault, and the risk of losing federal money, has put pressure on colleges to show they’re taking the issue seriously.
Another factor in the push to give campus police more power is the perception that college campuses are increasingly dangerous places. But the numbers don’t bear that out. The rate of violent crime on college campuses is a fraction of the national average and has declined by 27 percent over the past decade, according to BJS. Despite the saturation media coverage of such events, according to the IACLEA, from 2000-2013 there were just 12 active-shooting incidents at the nearly 5,000 U.S. degree-granting institutions — fewer than one a year.
Admittedly harrowing anomalies such as the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech aside, you’re far less likely to get hurt at an American university than on the streets of most midsize U.S. cities. But that hasn’t stopped campus police forces from fortifying themselves against both real and imagined threats.
The Department of Justice reports that in 2012, 75 percent of public and private four-year colleges employed armed police and guards, up from 68 percent in 2005. Over the same period, the percentage of campuses with armed private security guards grew from 2 percent to 11 percent, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting.
And just like their colleagues in municipal law enforcement, campus police departments have been supplementing their arsenals with hardware designed for war. According to the New York Times, as of last year more than 100 colleges had acquired surplus military equipment including assault rifles, armored vehicles and at least one grenade launcher through the Department of Defense’s 1033 program.
Some campus PDs even have their own SWAT team, including the University of Delaware, Radford University in Virginia, the University of Georgia and the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. Other campus PDs conduct joint operations with regional SWAT teams through mutual aid pacts.
In 2013, Ohio State University raised eyebrows when its SWAT team acquired a 19-ton mine-resistant ambush vehicle, courtesy of the U.S. government. It’s not clear why an institution of higher education thinks it needs a vehicle designed to withstand an improvised explosive device, but perhaps not surprisingly, the rise in the number of armed campus security officers has been paralleled by a rise in controversial officer-involved shootings (more than a dozen since 2003). Almost all involved unarmed students. In many of the cases, the student was intoxicated (which, of course, isn’t uncommon among college students).
A few recent examples: In December 2013, 23-year-old Texas student Cameron Redus was shot and killed by a campus police officer during a traffic stop. Redus was unarmed. A few months earlier, the same officer who shot Redus had entered the dorm room of a female student, at night and without a warrant, to question her about a hit-and-run. In 2012, 18-year-old Gil Collar was shot while standing naked outside a campus police station at the University of South Alabama. And in 2009 — in a case eerily redolent of the Walter Scott shooting in Charleston, S.C. — a former student of William Paterson University (the same school mentioned above in the sexual assault cases) was shot in the back while fleeing a campus police officer. Officials say the student, who was not armed, had been seen breaking into cars on the campus. His lawyers say he was leaving fliers on windshields. Unlike Scott, the student survived the shooting, and in a final injustice was forced to plead guilty to a misdemeanor eluding charge. The officer was not disciplined.
Recently, allegations of racial profiling by police at several schools – including Yale, the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Minnesota – have attracted some scrutiny to the opaqueness of campus police departments. A federal law known as the Clery Act requires colleges to report campus crime statistics, but getting information on police stops, accusations of misconduct and even arrest details is difficult under most state laws. Despite having many of the powers of official police, nearly two-thirds of the nation’s private campus police departments lack official accreditation. The courts have generally ruled that this exempts them from transparency laws.
In 2006, for example, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that even though the Harvard campus police department has the power to make arrests and obtain search warrants, it is not “an agency of the Commonwealth such that it becomes subject to the mandates of the public records law.”
At least a few public officials have shown some concern. The Ohio Supreme Court recently ordered police at Otterbein University, a private college, to provide student journalists access to police reports. Elsewhere, some lawmakers have responded to community concerns about campus cops by trying to dismantle some of these protections from disclosure. In March, after a rash of complaints of racial profiling by the University of Chicago Police Department, the Illinois legislature considered an amendment to the state’s Private College Campus Police Act to force disclosure rules on private universities. The bill easily cleared the state House in April, but it died in committee before it could reach the Senate floor.
In May, similar legislation was introduced in Indiana after a judge ruled that as a private entity, the University of Notre Dame wasn’t required to turn over athlete arrest records to a reporter from ESPN.
One new law in Texas shows just how conflicted the issues surrounding campus policing can be. The law was designed to force private campus police forces to abide by open records laws. It passed and takes effect in September. But after debate had ended and just before it was passed, it was quietly amended to give campus cops expanded jurisdiction off-campus.
As of now, just three states – Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia – currently have laws on the books forcing transparency on campus cops. According to Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center (SPLC), there isn’t much incentive for campus PDs in other states to be more forthcoming. “I think the vast majority of colleges don’t consider themselves to be subject to these disclosure laws, and the answer you would probably get [as a journalist seeking information] is ‘sue us.’”