University police face unique challenges in urban location

Justin Costley

The University’s urban setting, coupled with the educational and community-friendly mission needed on campus, sets the University Police Department’s goals and responsibilities apart from other police departments.
University Police Chief George Aylward — who has been in law enforcement since 1962 , also serving as a police chief in Connecticut and Pennsylvania — said the University Police Department operates both as a campus and city department.
This means providing all the services that a municipal department provides, while also contributing to a positive atmosphere in which students can learn, Aylward added.
“We are the mechanism that the University uses to enforce the laws,” Aylward said. “At the same point in time, I think we need to be maybe not so law enforcement-oriented, so we work on the overall quality of life here.”
Despite the educational and community goals of the campus police department, the urban setting does present challenges that other University departments do not have to contend with.
Aylward said during a recent meeting of the chiefs of police from the Big Ten conference and Notre Dame that other chiefs were amazed by the geographic layout of the University and the law enforcement challenges it presents.
“They were struck by it,” Aylward said. “I mean, that it was really a city, in a sense, within a city, and how do we handle that?”
Aylward said the result is that the majority of arrests made by the campus police are nonstudents or not University-related.
He added that the department operates like a municipal department on some levels because police officers patrol some residential areas surrounding campus. In addition, the campus attracts scores of people not affiliated with the University given its location between two major cities and the heavy traffic along Washington Avenue.
“There’s a real difference in providing service in State College than being in Minneapolis,” Aylward said, referring to Penn State University’s surrounding community. “It makes us a bit more arrest-oriented in some areas. These are the actions that we have to take to keep the quality of life here what we want it to be.”
One of these areas is alcohol-related crimes. In fact, according to the individual schools’ own police departments, the University of Minnesota’s 656 alcohol, drug or weapons arrests in 1999 ranked second in the Big Ten conference behind Michigan State University’s 1,021.
A large percentage of the people arrested or ticketed for alcohol-related incidents are not affiliated with the University.
University versus municipal
While the location and population of the University forces the campus police to act more like a city police department, Aylward said the department’s mission to be more proactive in the community sets it apart.
“Municipal departments traditionally make noises that they’re going to be involved in all sorts of community programs, but at the same time they really don’t devote many resources into that,” Aylward said. “What we’re going to do is essentially put all our resources into that.”
Aylward cites department staff reductions during the past several years as a problem that has forced officers to devote most of their energy to reactive policing.
“We’re trying to get ahead of that curve, trying to put the officers in a position where they can spend some time doing things in the community proactively,” Aylward said.
This has to be done, Aylward added, through the training of officers. He said he wants to initiate a plan in which officers are introduced to the leaders of the numerous campus, community and student groups.
This will help people trust and work with the police, as well as making the officers more involved with the community, Aylward said.
“I think that when you come to work every day and you have sort of a personal attachment to what you’re doing and the people, it makes it a better job,” he said. “This will lead to an environment where the community can come together with the police in order to handle crises.”
The level of community activism Aylward said is important on a University campus makes the type of officers hired by the University police different than those hired at a city department.
Aylward said the University department has rejected qualified candidates because of a feeling that they were too enforcement-oriented, or that they would use the campus police as a training ground before moving on to a larger department.
“We don’t want to waste our time with that,” Aylward said. “We tend to try to select people that have an interest in working here.”
This means asking questions designed to see if potential officers are people and community-friendly and enjoy working with a diverse, ever-changing community.
University Police Lt. Richard Giese said the student population, which changes every few years, adds to the differences between the University police and a municipal department by making officers talk with and reach out to new students every year.
He said, in a city, police departments get to know their community and are able to send out fliers in order to inform residents about issues.
The campus community, however, changes every semester, and officers must spend more time educating new people.
“People are here for a quarter, a year, two years, four years and then they’re gone,” Giese said. “We need to educate the community on the same types of things every semester, because there is the possibility of having new people in every semester.”
After beginning his career with the University Police Department, Officer Troy Buhta briefly left for the St. Louis Park police before coming back six months ago.
He returned because he said he missed the people at the University department, it was closer to his home and the benefits were better.
Buhta added that there were fewer resources available for becoming community-friendly in St. Louis Park than at the University.
“You have more time here to get involved in the community and get to know the people,” Buhta said. “I think it makes them feel better that they know the (officer), and every time you show up it’s not just because of something bad.”

Justin Costley covers the police and welcomes comments at [email protected] He can also be reached at (612)627-4070 x3224