Universities across the Big Ten are proving that a larger police force doesn’t necessarily equal a safer campus community.
Budget issues, campus culture and student perceptions of police all affect the ability of officers to do their jobs. But University of Minnesota police Deputy Chief Chuck Miner said better training and outreach are improving the outlook for campus police.
The ratio of police to students falls beneath the national average at most Big Ten campuses. The University of Minnesota has the smallest officer-to-student ratio in the Big Ten — less than one officer to every 1,000 students — but it boasts the second-lowest crime rate in the conference.
Ohio State University recorded the lowest crime rate, with the second-smallest police force.
“It’s sort of a catch-22,” Ohio State University police Deputy Chief Richard Morman said. “If your crime rate is lower than the number of officers implies, then do you need more officers?”
Since crime rates are not always indicative of how many officers are needed, university police struggle to arrive at an appropriate number of officers, Morman said.
“It’s hard because an adequate number of officers depend on what you are trying to accomplish,” Morman said. “If you want to be proactive, there just aren’t enough right now.”
University budgets often limit the number of officers on campuses.
UMPD has budgeted for 54 officer positions, but only 50 of the positions are currently filled, according to University of Minnesota police Chief Greg Hestness.
Hestness said he has room to hire four more officers but hasn’t done so to save money to cover operating costs like for equipment.
With 51 officers and one of the smallest student-to-police ratios in the conference, Pennsylvania State University police Chief Tyrone Parham said he experiences similar budget limitations.
“It’s much easier to tell someone you need police than to actually get more,” he said.
Parham and Hestness agreed that their departments could use more officers, but they recognize that budgets limit that possibility.
In order to staff special events like homecoming and football games around the University of Minnesota campus, Minneapolis police are called in to help, Miner said.
Some other universities, like the University of Wisconsin-Madison, use police officers to fill positions traditionally occupied by civilians, like dispatch and security, Miner said. They prefer to use officers so they have more police on hand in case of emergencies or large events.
UMPD uses civilians to fill such positions, Miner said.
“We view emergency management as more of a career-type position,” Miner said. “It’s a pretty specialized field.”
But Morman said employing fewer officers doesn’t always solve concerns. These officers are required to work longer shifts, meaning much of the budget goes to overtime pay.
“Even if you have a low number of officers, you still needed to cover all the shifts,” he said. “So you sometimes have officers working 17 hours a day.”
Few police, but low crime?
Campus police across the Big Ten agree that on-campus visibility is the greatest deterrent to crime, but with limited numbers of officers, they have been forced to come up with unique methods of enforcement.
“People want to see police out and about,” Morman said. “They feel better; they feel safer.”
Police said the nature of college campuses, where crime rates fluctuate around athletic events, homecoming and the academic calendar, makes policing these areas a unique challenge.
“Basic enforcement can be very challenging from time to time,” Miner said, “especially when you have a situation where you get extremely busy certain times of the year.”
In the past, departments relied heavily on patrols to address campus crime. But crime prevention strategies have since been prioritized.
“When I first started here in the ’90s, we were very reactive with crime,” Miner said. “Now, we’ve found ways to become more proactive and prevent it.”
Miner said UMPD introduced the Coordinated Response Team, a new crime prevention unit, in 2011. The unit assesses trends in crime statistics and finds weaknesses in enforcement.
“They’re really our behind-the-scenes unit,” Miner said.
Alcohol offenses comprise the majority of campus crime across the board. The UW-Madison campus recorded the highest crime rate in the Big Ten in 2011, with more than 1,700 offenses, while Ohio State recorded just under 300.
Parham, of Penn State, said although it’s hard to measure how much visibility deters crime, he’s observed how people change when they see police.
“It’s like when someone sees a state patrol car on the highway — they slow down,” he said. “People straighten up when they see a police officer.”
Michigan State University police Deputy Chief David Trexler said this visibility is vital on his campus. He said his officers often sit with students during meals at residence halls.
“We have a real connection with our students, and it’s had a huge impact,” he said.
The relationship between students and university police officers used to be contentious.
Now, Big Ten officials say student perceptions of university police have improved.
“We have the same training as any city officer,” Miner said. “We’ve made it clear we are the real thing.”
The shift in attitudes has been part of a cultural shift on campus, Miner said.
“In the ’90s, it used to be a problem,” he said. “But we’ve become much more professional with our image on campus.”
Morman said Ohio State University police used to struggle with their self-image but not anymore.
“We had some officers who actually thought they weren’t the real police,” he said.
Northwestern University police Deputy Chief Dan McAleer said student respect is still an issue university police face, but the situation is improving.
Northwestern is home to the highest student-to-officer ratio in the Big Ten and is the only campus where the ratio exceeds the national average.
“We sometimes get the ‘You’re just here to be the no-fun police’ response,” he said. “I think that as we’ve become more visible, the student perception has changed.”
Miner said the improved image of University police has made it easier for officers to do their jobs.
“Once in a while, you get people who say we’re not real cops,” he said. “But once they get arrested and spend a night in jail, they figure it out pretty quick.”
Big Ten police departments are not on their own when it comes to solving problems.
This week, chiefs and deputy chiefs from departments across the Big Ten will travel to UW-Madison for an annual meeting.
Miner said the meetings are an opportunity for university police to share ideas and resources to improve enforcement and crime prevention.
Since some universities are further along than others in enforcement, Miner said communication between departments is critical.
“We all experience the same problems,” he said, “so we all need to work together to solve them.”