Indictment of Cincinnati Campus Cop Raises Fears About Armed Police at Schools

The recent indictment of University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing has drawn attention to the 15,000 college police officers and their role on- and off-campus. Hamilton County Prosecutor's Office/Handout via Reuters/REUTERS

The indictment of University of Cincinnati Police Officer Ray Tensing for killing Samuel DuBose following a traffic stop has drawn attention to the armed police on many college campuses and the complications that arise when they draw their weapons, especially while off-campus.

In a news conference following the July 29 indictment, Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters called on the university to disband its police force and suggested that the city police take over campus law enforcement. “They’re not cops. And we have a great police department in Cincinnati, probably the best in Ohio. And I talked to the [city police] chief about it today. And I said, ‘You know, you guys should be doing this stuff,’ and I think he’s in agreement with it,” Deters said. “The university does a great job educating people...and that should be their job.”

In an interview with Newsweek, Cincinnati Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell clarified his conversation with Deters. “I do not think that we will take over or need to be taking over the University of Cincinnati policing duties,” he says. “My agreement with Mr. Deters is [that] they should not be off-campus doing the police work that our officers are better equipped to do.” That includes “stationary traffic enforcement, which is what this officer was involved in doing, several blocks away from the University of Cincinnati, in a very gritty part of our city.”

Following the July 19 shooting, school officials said that campus police would focus its patrols and conduct traffic stops only within campus boundaries, and that city police had agreed to increase patrols in those areas. Later, following the indictment, university President Santa Ono said in a statement that the school would “take necessary steps to address any training, staff and hiring policy issues that may be indicated by this tragic event” and that the department would undergo an external review. He also told the press the school would not disband its police force.

Blackwell says he and Ono have been in constant contact about how the two police forces can best serve students and the community. “Many of the students live off-campus, so what I would like to see happen is [campus police] continue to be allowed to come off-campus in a policing function that deals directly with students and only with students. All of the other stuff is not necessary. There’s no benefit,” Blackwell says.

Nearly all public colleges and universities employ sworn and armed officers. According to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, as of 2011-2012, 68 percent of four-year colleges with at least 2,500 students employ sworn officers with arrest powers. However, for public schools, the percentage with sworn officers is 92 percent. (For private schools it is 38 percent.) Eighty-six percent of sworn officers can make arrests off-campus, and 81 percent can patrol off-campus.

Seventy-five percent of schools use armed officers, up from 68 percent in 2004-2005, when the bureau conducted its previous survey. For public schools, the number with armed officers is 91 percent. Ninety-four percent of the officers can use a sidearm or chemical or pepper spray, and 93 percent can use batons.

In 2011-2012, colleges employed 14,576 full-time sworn officers, 10,906 non-sworn officers and a total of 31,904 law enforcement employees.

William Taylor, president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators and chief of police at San Jacinto College in Texas, says schools began employing sworn police in the 1950s or earlier. Schools ramped up their police forces in the Vietnam War era, he points out. At that time, he says, schools felt they needed their own policing units that could more effectively interact with students. After all, it was the Ohio National Guard that killed four students and wounded nine others at Kent State University in 1970.

The federal Clery Act of 1990 made campus policing more transparent. It required that colleges report crimes to local law enforcement and publish crime statistics. The act was named for a student who was raped and murdered in her Lehigh University dorm room in 1986; her family blamed inadequate security at the school.

The job of campus police has evolved in recent years, as school shootings have become more frequent and the issue of sexual violence on campus has garnered national attention. Though many victims’ advocacy groups have criticized how schools handle sexual assault cases, Alison Kiss, executive director of the Clery Center for Security on Campus, says, “On a college campus when you have law enforcement there who are engaged in prevention work or talking about this, the more that you talk about it, the more that students will end up reporting.”

“Campus public safety officers and police officers are just uniquely qualified to address situations involving college students, whether it’s on-campus or off-campus,” says Kim Richmond, director of the National Center for Campus Public Safety. “In many areas, the municipalities lack the resources to adequately police the areas surrounding campus, so we’re kind of a force multiplier in a lot of those areas. Campus police as a profession, we’ve been doing community policing long before that term was ever there.... We know them by name, and they know us by name,” she says of students.

As for whether campus officers should be able to patrol and make stops and arrests off-campus, Richmond says, “Crime doesn’t stop at a campus border.”

Taylor says, “Look at the statistics and I think you’ll see that campuses are almost always safer than the communities in which they sit.”

Not every public school employs its own police. In Alabama, city police took over policing duties at Auburn University in 2004. Paul Register, police chief for the city of Auburn, says his department of more than 100 officers now has a team responsible solely for patrolling campus 24 hours a day.

The University of Cincinnati’s police department has 72 police officers and 26 security officers, according to its website. Police officers there are not accredited (which is not unusual, campus law enforcement experts say), and carry weapons. According to university records, off-campus crime in areas the university police oversee has decreased since 2008. As of last year, violent crime had dropped 33.3 percent since 2008, and property crime had dropped 18 percent. By contrast, violent crime in areas that the city police oversee has decreased 10 percent in the past three years, and property crime has decreased 3 percent.

Issues that college police around the country face have plagued the University of Cincinnati force in recent years, including accusations of using excessive force. In 2010, a patient at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center died after a university police officer used a stun gun on him. In 2011, an 18-year-old participating in a precollege program there also died after a university police officer used a Taser on him.

Similar Taser incidents, though non-deadly ones, occurred at UCLA in 2006 and the University of Florida in 2007, as documented in the viral “Don’t Tase me, bro” video.

In 2013, a student at the University of the Incarnate World in Texas died after a campus officer shot him following a traffic stop.

School police departments have also faced challenges regarding the blurry town-gown jurisdictional divides with municipal police departments. In 2013, Jeff Corcoran, then interim chief of police at the University of Cincinnati, told The Associated Press, “It used to be we were responsible for the campus. Now there’s an expectation, I think, especially with parents, but to a large extent among students, that we’re also responsible for these areas off campus.... We’re getting pushed to ignore those imaginary lines on the map and be more proactive in that area.”

The location where Tensing began pursuing l DuBose was within a zone that university and local police share. However, the place where he pulled over DuBose was technically out of his jurisdiction, reports said.

“I have had some concerns over the past year or so that they were starting to be engaged off-campus in a fashion that I did not agree with,” says Blackwell, the Cincinnati city chief. “If there’s bad policing in my community done by a non-Cincinnati police officer but it’s close to our community, it affects our ability to police.”

Blackwell also points to what he calls “a diversity issue” on the university force. Only a few minorities are working as police officers there, he says, whereas in his department, the number is around 30 percent. “If you don’t have anybody in the room that has been there, done that, that has lived in those communities, that has shared experiences and values of some of the people that live there, you may not even realize that you’re being heavy-handed and oppressive,” he says.

The New York Times reported that Cincinnati city police go through 1,040 hours of academy training and university police undergo 616 hours in the academy and 80 additional hours in new-officer training. Campus law enforcement experts say there is generally no difference in training between municipal and school police. Blackwell disagrees. “I think the major metropolitan agencies have training protocols that are far more robust than what you would get at a community college or some law enforcement program that a lot of the college police officers seem to go to,” he says.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics report, new sworn officers must complete, on average, 1,027 training hours.

Tensing apparently stopped DuBose for driving without a front license plate. Body camera footage appears to show DuBose trying to drive away and Tensing then shooting him. The county prosecutor indicted Tensing on one count of murder and one count of voluntary manslaughter. The university dismissed him from the force, and he is now out on a $1 million bond. He has pleaded not guilty.

“I would hope that people wouldn’t take this incident that occurred there involving one particular officer at a particular place and time who happened to work for a particular institution—and use that to paint a broad brush of campus law enforcement. I think it’s not representative of what college law enforcement is. College law enforcement is a very professional group of people,” Taylor says. “This is not us.”