By Sarah Viren
The Houston Chronicle
University police departments are bigger and more likely to arm their officers than a decade ago, according to a recent study by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
In Texas, law enforcement departments on college campuses seem to be ahead of this trend, with nearly 94 percent of surveyed universities arming their police and just as many employing sworn officers.
"Texas is Texas: We are a state that has firearms," said Bill Taylor, chief of police at Rice University, which has sworn and armed officers. "If you don't have firearms on campus, what are the campus police going to do if somebody shows up with a weapon?"
Taylor, a member of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, calls the laws in Texas more progressive because they allow university police to carry guns and allow private colleges and universities to start up their own law enforcement departments. Some state laws, including those in Florida and Missouri, make it difficult for private schools to create their own armed police agencies.
The national trend toward bigger policing units, however, comes despite a reported decrease in violent and property crime on universities, according to the federal report, which was released in late February.
"I think a lot of times you get these high-profile events that make people feel less safe even though the actual crime numbers might not be getting worse," said Brian Reaves, author of the report.
His report looked at the most recent national data available, from the 2004-05 school year, which was before the Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University shootings. Reaves said these more recent student shooting sprees will likely lead more college police departments to arm their officers.
In Texas, 44 of the 47 universities surveyed have armed officers, compared with about two-thirds of universities nationwide. But only four Texas schools reported giving their police Tasers, compared with 20 percent nationally. These were University of Texas at Austin, Tech Tech University, Texas State University in San Marcos and West Texas A&M.
Texans lead nation
Texas universities on average staffed bigger university police departments than the rest of the nation per student, with about five full-time police staff per 1,000 students compared with 3.8 nationally. Reaves' report looked only at schools with at least 2,500 students.
The biggest police operations appeared to be at two of the state's medical and science schools: the University of Texas Health Science Centers in Houston and San Antonio. But UT Houston Assistant Police Chief Thomas Engells said the report, which lists 235 law enforcement staff per 3,398 students at his university, is misleading. The majority of his officers handle security at MD Anderson Cancer Center, which is part of the UT system.
Other universities with large per-student police departments include Rice University, Houston Baptist University, Texas Southern University and Prairie View A&M University. Nationally, private colleges tended to have bigger per-student policing operations, the report said.
Although campus police can get a bad rap on some campuses for shutting down parties or getting overzealous about parking tickets, University of Houston junior Kelsie Hahn said she mostly sees police as protectors.
"I know some of the officers by sight in a way that I don't know my city police, and it's always nice to see familiar faces around, especially when you are walking around at night," said Hahn, also the editor of the school newspaper.
Her school falls near the bottom of the list in Texas when it comes to police staff per 1,000 students. University of Houston has about one law enforcement staff per 1,000 students, compared with Rice's nine staff to 1,000 students. UH also has a lower percentage of students living on campus.
The state's biggest schools — the University of Texas and Texas A&M — each employ three police staff per 1,000 students, according to the study.
There are more than 13,000 officers working at colleges around the nation, Reaves said. According to the Bureau of Statistics report, these departments tend to have stiffer education requirements but pay lower wages for first-time officers and demand fewer hours of outside training than city and county police departments.
Taylor said he's seen an increase in professionalism among college police and thinks the trend benefits not just students, but local police, who are freed up to focus on crimes outside the campus. But the Rice chief says having a distinctive department also allows his officers to be more community-oriented.
"We actually do a different brand of policing," he said. "Houston is much more about responding to calls, being reactive. We try to be more proactive."
Copyright 2008 The Houston Chronicle
Report: New class of campus police is bigger and better-armed