How COVID-19 is impacting campus police operations

From enforcing health and safety guidelines to virtually engaging with students, university police departments face many new challenges during the pandemic


It is no surprise that as students began to return to college this semester, the number of COVID-19 cases on campus started to rise nationwide. A New York Times tracker has revealed at least 88,000 COVID-19 cases at American colleges since the pandemic began. Viral videos of dorm parties attended by unmasked students failing to practice social distancing have caused concern not only to parents but also to the university cops who are charged with keeping hundreds of thousands of students safe.

Police1 recently asked representatives from three educational institutions to share how their operations have changed in response to the pandemic.

WORK WITH STUDENTS, NOT AGAINST THEM

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee PD has created special party patrol shifts that patrol student neighborhoods near campus. (Photo/University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee)
The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee PD has created special party patrol shifts that patrol student neighborhoods near campus. (Photo/University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee)

COVID-19 has affected police departments worldwide and especially those police departments on university campuses. 

As chief of police at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, I have directed members of our department to take on leadership positions within the emergency planning and recovery operations for COVID-19, and I have served as co-incident commander, along with the campus health officer, for our emergency operations center. 

Now that most planning is finalized for the Fall 2020 return of students and employees, I have directed our department to take a proactive approach to enhance what we have already built related to community policing and our relationship with the City of Milwaukee Police Department. In particular, I want to build on our efforts in dealing with student parties and other gatherings in the neighborhoods surrounding campus.

Although there is always some measure of enforcement related to parties, noise and other quality of life issues, we have taken a proactive step in educating students on COVID-19 health concerns, how to stay healthy and the need to abide by both university health and safety guidelines and City of Milwaukee health orders.

With this in mind, we have created special party patrol shifts that patrol student neighborhoods near campus. Officers engage with students at houses where it appears that a party may soon begin. This engagement is meant to be educational in both law and health and safety guidelines. Waiting until the party begins flies in the face of health and science – we don’t want the gathering to begin in the first place. If the gathering is already taking place, then viral spread may have already occurred and breaking up the party may just displace these partygoers to other locations.

Educating and guiding students on appropriate ways to stay safe and healthy, such as gathering only in smaller, socially distanced groups, is beneficial to campus, students and our City of Milwaukee partners. In cases where these educational efforts are ignored, UWM or Milwaukee Police will enforce laws as appropriate. We are also the conduit to our Dean of Students office for student conduct processes as needed.

Across the nation and the world, we see differing levels of compliance with health and safety guidelines. We need to let students know that we have expectations for their behavior, but we do not “blame” them for community spread. However, they do play an important role, and their behavior can have an impact on the spread of the virus. We are pushing the position that we are working with students and not against them. Although social gatherings are viewed as part of a “college experience,” so are education, social responsibility, partnerships and leadership. If we all do our part in combatting this pandemic, then I am optimistic that we will return soon to a level of normalcy where we all can celebrate our successes, especially the students’ future graduations.

‒ Joseph LeMire is chief of police for the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He started his law enforcement career with the UW Madison Police Department in 1993. Since that time, he has worked for the Hannahville Indian Community in Wilson, Michigan, The Escanaba Public Safety Department in Michigan and the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh where he served as police chief before being appointed chief of police by UW Milwaukee in July 2015. He has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, a Master of Public Administration and is a graduate of the Criminal Justice Executive Development Institute and the FBI Command College.

FIVE AREAS OF IMPACT

The coronavirus pandemic has presented challenges and forced new ways of doing business that we never could have anticipated when we began our law enforcement careers.

1. Operational issues

At the operational level, the pandemic has shaken the very core of how we, as campus police officers, do business. As campus officers, community engagement and personal interaction with our community serve as the foundation of our daily operations. Community engagement events during which campus officers seize opportunities to build relationships have been canceled thereby severely limiting a core crime and safety strategy for campus officers. Our limited ability to engage the community will inevitably have a future impact on police-community relations unless campus police departments find new ways to engage their communities.

2. Compliance issues

The impact of our limited ability to engage the community in the usual ways has been exacerbated by our urgent need to prevent the spread of COVID-19 so that our campuses can remain fully operational.

Limiting the spread of the virus sometimes means ensuring community compliance with state health department orders. While it is critical to ensure compliance with mask and social distancing mandates, many young people consider such matters to be minor infractions that do not warrant police involvement. Unfortunately, when students feel they are being targeted for what they perceive as minor infractions, campus police officers tend to lose legitimacy. Without those positive interactions, combined with increased enforcement encounters, campus police risk a sudden loss of legitimacy and voluntary compliance with laws and university rules.

Our best option to combat these challenges is to first rely on educational opportunities with students, followed by university disciplinary or more harsh measures only when other enforcement options have failed.

3. Staffing issues

The coronavirus has also impacted in-house relationships among officers.

At the height of the pandemic, some campus police departments temporarily dismantled the existing shifts and reassigned officers to small teams who worked twelve-hour shifts. The team structure intended to isolate officers within their teams, thereby limiting the impact a positive COVID case would have on the rest of the police department.

Additional measures aimed at limiting officers’ exposure to one another included limiting access to areas where officers traditionally congregate and bond such as the roll call room, the locker room and break room. While these limitations may have helped keep our officers healthy, it also may have diminished job satisfaction for those who view work as an opportunity to interact with friends and colleagues.

4. Administrative issues

The coronavirus has had a monumental impact at the administrative level of campus police departments as well.

Because the campus police department plays a key role in emergency management operations, campus police managers have had to shift their daily responsibilities away from police department operations and toward emergency management operations. For some pandemic-era campus police chiefs, as much as 80% of their time is now dedicated to coronavirus operations and management. The current job of a campus police chief looks unlike that of any previous chief of police. Like everyone else dealing with the pandemic, the challenge lies in not having prior experience to learn from.

Furthermore, the daily operational matters associated with police management have not ceased. This means that other police department managers have to take over tasks traditionally associated with higher levels of management to facilitate the chief's role in managing the pandemic.

5. Engagement issues

There are no easy solutions associated with the coronavirus pandemic. With traditional campus policing strategies being interrupted, campus officers are looking for new ways to engage their students, faculty and staff. Some short-term solutions can be virtual engagement events such as serving as a guest lecturer in distance learning courses, interviews with campus media outlets and increased social media activity. While these methods of engagement might not be as effective as traditional in-person events, campus police officers must do their best to prevent the loss of legitimacy and personal relationships with their communities that were built before the Coronavirus pandemic.

Jim Gilbride is a 20-year law enforcement veteran. After serving as a municipal police officer for nine years in Akron, Ohio, Jim transitioned to campus policing with The University of Akron Police Department, where he currently serves as deputy chief. Jim holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science/Criminal Justice and a Juris Doctor. He is also a graduate of the FBI National Academy, as well as Ohio’s Police Executive Leadership College. 

Chief Dale Gooding has served in law enforcement since 1995. He began his career with the Stark County Sheriff’s Office in Ohio as a deputy. Dale changed career paths in 2000 when he joined the University of Akron Police Department as a patrolman. Dale holds associate, bachelor and master’s degrees from the University of Akron. He is also a graduate of the FBI National Academy, Ohio’s Police Executive Leadership College and Great Lakes Command College.

UMB PAL PROVIDED PROGRAMMING AT HOME

During the summer months, the children who participate in the University of Maryland, Baltimore’s (UMB) Police Athletic/Activities League (PAL) Program look forward to meeting their friends at UMB’s Community Engagement Center, playing outdoor games and sports with UMB police officers, and going on field trips.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the summer of 2020 looked a little different than the norm, but the PAL kids were still able to engage in summer fun in the safety of their own homes. For five weeks, 28 PAL participants ages 9-12 logged into a Zoom virtual conference call every Tuesday through Friday for a full day of summer activities.

“With the uncertainty of a pandemic, this is a time when our kids need us as a support system the most,” said Borndavid McCraw, UMB PAL coordinator. “Staying consistent with programming and engagement is critical.”

PAL organizers also used the summer programming as an opportunity to educate the PAL children and teach them vital skills. By incorporating weekly lessons from BrainWise, 10 Wise Ways to Stop and Think, program leaders taught positive problem-solving and critical-thinking skills.

“The continued focus of our PAL summer programming is youth character development,” McCraw said. “While meeting with them regularly, we can use fun activities to help them build their confidence and interpersonal skills.”

UMB police officers also played a key role in the virtual summer. Not only did they drop in on the virtual programming every week, but they also reached out to the PAL children individually. Every Wednesday, officers helped to deliver lunches donated by a local business, The Nook Cafe, to each of the PAL families. These drop-offs not only provided a delicious meal, but they also allowed the officers to check in with the kids and families involved with the program.

“It felt great seeing the kids and giving them lunches. The expressions on their faces were priceless,” said Pfc. Vincent Bey-Williams, an officer with the UMB Police Department. “Engaging with kids in the community and continuing to help bridge the gap between public safety and the community is very important during these uncertain times.”

Program organizers are working to figure out what PAL after-school programming will look like in a virtual setting.

– Jena Frick is the senior media relations specialist for the Office of Communications and Public Affairs at the University of Maryland, Baltimore

NEXT: Improving long-term public perception through campus policing

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