By Eric Tucker
NEW HAVEN, Conn. — The police officers who patrol America's colleges are empowered these days to do far more than respond to campus emergencies.
Campus police around the country are increasingly expanding their jurisdiction beyond the school and into the surrounding neighborhoods, blurring a town-gown divide that colleges say is arbitrary when it comes to crime. Proponents say the arrangement allows schools to keep closer tabs on students who misbehave off-campus — making it easier to refer them for disciplinary proceedings, if necessary — and gives university officers greater flexibility to investigate campus crimes committed by community members. It can also ease the workload of resource-strapped municipal police departments.
"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," said Jeff Corcoran, interim chief of the University of Cincinnati police force, where officers patrol areas near the school. "We're getting pushed to ignore those imaginary lines on the map and be more proactive in that area."
Still, a proposed expansion of authority has stirred concerns in Washington, D.C., where residents say university police don't have the same level of training or transparency requirements as the city police. Campus police officers in the city have arrest powers on campus but participate in a separate, shorter training academy. And because private colleges generally aren't compelled by public records law to release the same information as public institutions and government agencies, some are concerned about a lack of accountability to the city and its residents.
"If one of their policemen acted inappropriately, there would be hardly any recourse. We'd have no information, no follow-up," said Ken Durham, a longtime resident of Foggy Bottom, the neighborhood that encompasses George Washington University, part of a consortium of schools mulling broader authority for their police.
Added Marina Streznewski, president of the Foggy Bottom Association, "Expanding the police powers of a university police force without some kind of clear and transparent mechanism is a really bad idea."
The discussion is part of a bigger debate among universities about what type of powers university police forces should have. It also comes as the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings and the Penn State child sex abuse case have focused public attention on campus crime and on universities' obligation to report criminal acts under the federal Clery Act.
In recent weeks, authorities investigated reports of a possible gunman in separate incidents at Yale, the University of New Haven and American University in Washington, D.C. Also, four buildings at Harvard were evacuated after police received an email claiming explosives were inside. There were no injuries in any of the incidents. A person was arrested in connection with the University of New Haven scare and weapons were recovered, according to the school.
As colleges and universities consider how best to safeguard the community, several have recently weighed whether to arm their officers — a debate that inevitably resurfaces after cases like the shooting this month of a Texas college student by a campus police officer after a traffic stop.
It's not uncommon for campus police to have mutual aid agreements governing their relationship with local law enforcement, laying out the geographic boundaries of their authority and the circumstances under which they can make off-campus arrests. But some universities are hiring additional officers to cover extra off-campus ground themselves. The primary purpose is to respond to complaints from or about off-campus students, but in many cases the officers hold the same law enforcement authority as municipal police and can arrest people, such as drunk drivers near campus, with no university affiliation.
Schools with a police presence in the community say the arrangement lets them better deal with off-campus misbehavior that may be better resolved through conversation, or disciplinary sanctions, than arrest.
Police at the University of Maryland in College Park, which stretched its jurisdiction even farther into the city this fall to encompass an influx of new student housing and expanded the student code of conduct to those areas, will address neighbor concerns by making visits to off-campus student homes that have hosted repeat parties. Prince George's County Police Chief Mark Magaw says he welcomes the aid.
"A lot of times it's almost restorative justice. You bring the community in, the community gets to know the students, the students get to know the residential homeowners," said university Police Chief David Mitchell.
Eastern Michigan University police committed two officers to patrol areas north of campus this fall after a university football player was killed at an off-campus apartment, and last month announced it would hire even more officers to help with those patrols.
DePauw University's expanded jurisdiction means police can conclude their own investigations into campus theft without having to hand the probe over to municipal law enforcement once the case crosses community boundaries, said vice president for student life Cindy Babington. The university police stretched its reach into Greencastle, Ind., following 2011 state legislation that gave campus police broader authority.
"Our police could only get so far. They weren't able to get the search warrant and see if the community members they sought had done this, had the property," she said. "So now they're able to complete the investigations themselves."
Tulane University recently expanded police jurisdiction to a one-mile perimeter beyond campus and its officers share a radio system with New Orleans police and participate in joint strategy sessions.
In Washington, a consortium of schools is contemplating giving campus police broader geographic authority. A proposal under consideration would extend university police jurisdiction to streets running through campus and to the sidewalk across the street from campus. Those boundaries would conform to the campus definition in the Clery Act, which requires schools to provide crime statistics for the area on and around campus.
"It is the thinking of our police chiefs that, right now, we report that activity as a crime on campus but we're not empowered to intercede," said Sally Kram, spokeswoman for the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area.
Though Kram said there's been no discussion about seeking off-campus arrest authority, the proposal would give campus police responsibility for a broader swath of territory. Campus police are legally hamstrung now from making off-campus arrests, except when they're in active pursuit of a suspect for a crime that started on campus,
But many residents around George Washington University have expressed opposition, raising concerns about training and professionalism and noting that private universities don't have the same legal requirement to provide detailed crime information as city police departments. GW, for instance, says while incident reports are used to prosecute defendants and are available by subpoenas in lawsuits, they are not generally made public.
"There are many people in the neighborhood who will make an assumption that a house full of young people of a such a certain age are students and they may not be," said Streznewski of the Foggy Bottom Association. "It gets really sticky when some of the people in the house are students and some aren't."
No formal proposal has been made, and details are still being worked out.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson is non-committal, saying while he understands university officers want authority to respond to off-campus complaints, he's concerned they don't have the same level of training on issues like mental health crises and use-of-force.
"I think we need to understand what exactly the campus police want and why and what limitations would be appropriate," Mendelson said.
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Copyright 2013 The Associated Press