Improving long-term public perception through campus policing
Campus cops have an unprecedented opportunity to impact students’ perception of the broader law enforcement community
By Jim Gilbride
College is a time of learning. Not just formal learning in the classroom, but also learning the art of living outside the classroom where students are likely to encounter law enforcement at some point in their lives. During this time, campus police officers have an opportunity to impact students’ perception of the broader law enforcement community by embracing and responding to the unique needs of their students. Such an opportunity is particularly valuable for a generation of students who grew up with significant exposure to negative media coverage of police officers.
Campus police have a few advantages when it comes to influencing students. First, research shows that the present generation of students, who came of age in an era of school shootings, embrace the presence of police on campus. Second, campus police have a captive audience when students are required to attend events such as new student orientations or even regular classes. Campus officers have an opportunity to reach large segments of their community by participating in these events as presenters or guest speakers.
Merely being present is not enough to have a meaningful impact on students. Rather, campus police should be prepared to deliver a professional message that demonstrates their understanding of and responsiveness to the campus community’s unique needs. Of course, the message and delivery depend on the specific needs and expectations of the individual campus community. However, there are a few commonalities that might serve campus police departments well as they seek to influence long-term perceptions of law enforcement.
1. Embrace the specialized nature of campus policing
There are undoubtedly similarities between campus policing and traditional policing, particularly in terms of officer safety, emergency preparedness, investigations and arrests. This being the case, campus police officers should be recognized as law enforcement officers if they are to have an impact on current and future perceptions of law enforcement. Using titles for police officers such as “public safety officers” or “security officers” could convolute the community’s understanding of the role of campus police officers. Such titles could also lead to confusion that impacts present expectations of campus officers, as well as future expectations of law enforcement in general.
Nonetheless, differences remain between campus policing and municipal policing. So much so that campus policing can fairly be described as a specialized field within the broader law enforcement industry. What works in a broader municipal community might not work in a campus community. Going beyond recognizing the differences and actually embracing them is essential to effective campus policing and positively impacting students’ perceptions of law enforcement.
2. Embrace the expectations of the campus community
Campus policing is a balancing act. On one side of the scale, campus police officers are tasked with providing a safe campus, which sometimes requires making arrests. Campus communities in general, and students in particular, understand such action is necessary to protect them from outside harm.
On the other side of the scale, campus communities have a unique perception of fairness when it comes to policing the campus community itself. Specifically, students tend to believe that it is unfair for campus police to take enforcement action against students for what they perceive as minor infractions such as alcohol offenses. Students tend to delegitimize campus officers when they take such enforcement action.
Similarly, college campuses are traditionally viewed as theaters for social change. Such change cannot take place without robust speech and debate. In that regard, campus communities expect their police forces to show more tolerance and restraint than their municipal counterparts when responding to protests and demonstrations that are common on college campuses.
These unique perceptions of fairness create a conundrum for campus police departments. This conundrum requires campus police to carefully balance the need for safety against meeting community expectations. Achieving this balance often means proactively using education and prevention strategies with arrest being a last resort.
3. Embrace the role of campus policing in the academic mission
Campus police contribute to a university’s academic mission by providing a safe environment that is conducive to research and learning. However, a university’s academic mission is not limited to classroom learning. Rather, their mission includes teaching students, through life experience, how to contribute to and interact with their community.
Students sometimes find themselves interacting with campus police outside of the classroom in situations that are likely to be a student’s first independent interaction with law enforcement. These first-time experiences present an opportunity for campus police to have a positive impact on students’ long-term perceptions of law enforcement.
Campus police can create opportunities with students outside the classroom by mentoring and coaching them as they transition to a new stage in their life. The trick is for campus police officers to seek out those opportunities in areas that interest them. Everyone can find a place to fit in within a campus community, including its police officers.
If an officer has an interest in sports, they can establish themselves within the campus’ athletics community. Likewise, if an officer has an interest in music, they can establish themselves within the university’s music program. Whether it is through Greek life, residence halls or a particular academic program, there are countless rewarding opportunities for campus officers to establish themselves as mentors and coaches.
Every campus police department is unique. However, they all have an opportunity to impact a generation’s perception of law enforcement. Seizing those opportunities requires officers to embrace their community and their specialized role as campus police officers. Doing so serves to advance the long-term success of students, society and the law enforcement profession.
1. Schuh JH. Student Services: A Handbook for the Profession, 6th ed. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2011.
2. Jacobsen SK. Policing the ivory tower: Students’ perceptions of the legitimacy of campus police officers. Deviant Behavior, 2014, 36:4, pp. 310–329.
3. Peak KJ, et al. Campus policing in America. Police Quarterly, 2008, 11:2, pp. 239–260, for a discussion that using the word “police” in a campus agency name demonstrates professionalization of campus policing.
4. Wilson CP, Wilson SA. Evaluating Legitimacy and Marginalization: Campus Policing in the State of Rhode Island. Cogent Social Sciences, 2015, 1:1.
5. Bordner DC, Petersen DM. Campus Policing: The Nature of University Police Work. University Press of America, 1983.
6. See also Patten, Ryan, et al. The continued marginalization of campus police. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, 2016, 39: 3, pp. 566–583.
7. Wada JC. Betwixt and between: The perceived legitimacy of campus police. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, 2010, 33:1, pp. 114–131.
About the author
Jim Gilbride is a 20-year law enforcement veteran. After serving as a municipal police officer for nine years in Akron, Ohio, Jim transitioned to campus policing with the University of Akron Police Department, where he currently serves as the patrol operations captain. Jim holds a bachelor’s degree in political science/criminal justice and a Juris Doctor. He is also a graduate of the FBI National Academy, as well as Ohio’s Police Executive Leadership College.