In 1894, New Haven police officers Bill Wiser and Jim Donnelly volunteered to be stationed at Yale University. At the time, they had no idea that they were going to be the first members of a new type of law enforcement that would soon sweep the nation. The city of New Haven was having issues with students who would retreat back to Yale’s campus after causing mischief in the community. The NHPD and Yale University realized that they would mutually benefit from stationing police officers on campus, and with the assignment of these two officers, the first campus police force in the country was formed.
Today, campus police forces have become a staple of college life, forming rapidly in reaction to the campus unrest of the 60s and 70s. When high school seniors tour universities, parents are always eager to ask about campus security. How big is the campus police force? How quickly do they respond? How effective are the blue emergency lights at calling them? And the tour guide will have almost always have prepared answers for all of these questions.
But when students get to campus in the fall and have to actually interact with these officers, it’s not uncommon to still have some confusion about campus police’s powers. If ten different students were asked about the authority of their campus police force, you would likely get ten different answers. It’s been regularly shown that students generally have positive attitudes towards their university’s police force. But many also hold serious doubts about their legitimacy as officers. Legitimacy issues mostly stem from students’ beliefs that campus officers police minor crimes too harshly. When this doubt is cast on campus police forces it delegitimizes them, eroding the trust of the students that they are assigned to protect.
So are campus police officers ‘real’ cops, and should they be treated as such? The short answer to these questions is, generally, yes. Campus police officers wield large amounts of authority on campus grounds and in surrounding areas, and should be treated with respect and deference in an encounter.
However, as could be expected, the whole truth is more complicated then a simple yes or no answer. It always depends on the specific police force, as different states have different laws governing their powers, and even within states forces differ in their authority. For instance, in the State University of New York School system (SUNY), a massive force of approximately 600 officers is employed. That’s a force larger than those found in some small towns, let alone smaller universities! The SUNY school system is an interesting example because even throughout such a large force, there still exists variation between levels of force allowed, authority to arrest, and jurisdiction between schools and officers.
It may be surprising that different officers on the same university force have different levels of authority. Their previous law enforcement experience and credentials are the usual explanation for that difference. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that 9 out of 10 public universities and 4 out of 10 private universities use state-sworn police officers, and approximately 75% of campuses use armed police forces. Of these sworn officers, 94% are permitted a sidearm, and 86% have the authority to make arrests outside of campus grounds.
When Officers Wiser and Donnelly were detailed to Yale University in 1894, they were operating as officers of the NHPD. And today, just like back then, most campus officers have authority comparable to their local police counterparts. They have the authority to make arrests on and around campus, and most sworn officers are permitted to use force at their discretion. This is why it’s so important to get informed and contact campus administrators to prepare yourself for any encounters that may arise. And then, after that, to hope that they never do!