University police departments face unique challenges that call for unique solutions and approaches outside of conventional policing
Not all law enforcement agencies are created equal. State, county, local and federal agencies each perform their respective duties to fulfill the greater mission of keeping society safe. Federal agencies differ greatly from state, local and county agencies and vice versa. Whether these differences relate to agency roles (targeted enforcement such as DEA or highway patrol) or jurisdiction (state, county, municipality or tribe), each agency contributes to this mission via their own unique position within the law enforcement profession.
But where do university law enforcement agencies fall in this spectrum? University police departments are often dismissed as glorified security guards. I’m here to dispel the myth that university law enforcement agencies don’t have as much to offer the profession as their federal, state, county and local counterparts.
University police departments face unique challenges that call for unique solutions and approaches outside of conventional policing. As a result, university police departments can provide the following benefits to the law enforcement profession.
1. Help LE understand the next generation of cops
University populations consist of a large contingent of millennials with an exponentially growing number of Generation Z students. University police departments can be a resource for those jurisdictions that have yet to experience how to effectively deal with the younger generations. These kids are the future of our profession. We need to understand them and craft them into productive, effective crime fighters so they can keep us safe while we enjoy the retirement we’ve all earned.
2. Offer internal assets to assist with investigations
A university police department provides a vast array of educational resources that can be helpful for police investigations. For example, what if you need a subject matter expert for trial? Looking for new methods to reduce crime? Faculty members dedicate their lives to their specific field and can be an invaluable resource throughout an investigation and trial. Collaborating with these professors and other subject matter experts allows you to get what you need for your case, as well as the experts getting the benefit of applying their expertise to a real-world scenario.
I’ve had the privilege of tapping into these same resources on my campus to further an investigation and achieved great results. I can safely say had I not tapped into those resources my investigation would’ve fallen short of its desired outcome. It certainly has been rewarding watching the ripple effect of this collaboration in recent events.
Some university police departments may have unique internal assets such as crime and intelligence analysts, grant writers, professional emergency managers (PEM), FOIA experts and Clery compliance officers. These resources may serve to assist your department with improving data-driven policing, becoming better prepared for emergencies, or getting more grants to help pay for more equipment or personnel.
3. Share expertise for regional specialty teams, emergency action planning
Nowadays, a lot is expected of university police departments given the potential for active violence incidents. Universities are expected to be prepared for the worst to deliver the best response to any threat that may present itself. The police department is undoubtedly at the core of this mission to ensure the public’s safety. University police departments are often blessed with top notch training, equipment and a budget with which to achieve this mission. Teaming up with a university police department via a regional specialty team may serve to be beneficial for not only your department but the university, as well. University police officers can benefit from the skills and experiences of other agencies and vice versa.
Given the active shooter threat campuses face, it is incumbent upon the university’s police department to be prepared for these critical incidents as the designated first responders. This is accomplished by having established emergency action plans. University agencies often have personnel who’ve completed extensive training and conducted many off-site evaluations of other universities to compare how each other stack up in emergency preparedness. If your agency is lacking in emergency management preparedness, what better resource than your local university police department’s emergency management division?
4.Provide the benefit of broad educational backgrounds
Based on data from 2011-2012, 43 percent of sworn campus police officers had a 4-year degree or higher. A 4-year degree is mandatory at my department and I know the case is the same at other Big Ten universities. Many officers at my department have degrees outside of criminal justice including sociology, accounting, education, construction management, fitness and nutrition, and human resources. This means many of our officers are multifaceted in their knowledge and skills. These officers serve as a resource to their department, their peers and the community. This concept is similar to what military reservists bring from experience to their military duties.
5. Present a venue for training
In Michigan, most academies not belonging to the State Police are administered by a university or a community college. There are many opportunities for training on a campus. A police academy can serve as a source for subject matter experts for in-service trainings. Training is paramount and learning is perpetual. Ensure your agency takes advantage of every resource at its disposal.
A university also offers a venue for training to be hosted and thus can serve as a training hub for local agencies. University buildings are built to foster a learning environment. If your agency wants to host training but doesn’t have the proper space to facilitate learning, a nearby campus may be willing to help. Getting to know your local university police officers can potentially initiate more training being hosted in your area.
I strongly encourage those who work in a jurisdiction with a university police department in their area of operation to reach out to their campus partners. Developing relationships with campus personnel could prove fruitful for future investigations. Additionally, for those who are seeking employment within law enforcement as either a first-timer or seasoned veteran looking for new challenges, I’d challenge you to see what your local university police department can offer.
About the author
Andrew Rathbun previously served with the Michigan State University Police Department. Andrew was assigned to the Uniform Division for four years prior to transferring to the Investigative Division’s Digital Forensics and Cyber Crime Unit (DFCCU). He specialized in digital forensics and cybercrime, as well as conducting general investigations. Andrew also served in the United States Marine Corps Reserve as a rifleman. Andrew served one combat tour to Fallujah, Iraq, in 2006-2007 with his infantry unit out of Michigan. In continuation of his service, he works with the Michigan State University Communication Arts and Sciences department on various PTSD awareness campaigns. Andrew earned his bachelor’s from Western Michigan University in Criminal Justice/Sociology and his master’s from Central Michigan University in Human Resources Administration.