Beat cops still have home with University Police

Gone are the days of beat cops on every corner, twirling nightsticks, toting whistles and poking blue five-point hats into storefronts.
But the beat cops are not entirely gone.
While the University Police Department employs nearly 40 officers responsible solely for the campus, trends in law enforcement techniques and staffing shortages have transformed platoons of pavement-pounding uniformed cops into primarily plainclothes, squad car and bicycle patrols.
But just because badges aren’t always conspicuously displayed in the campus streets doesn’t mean University cops are not out and about.
In addition to the many squad cars monitoring traffic and responding to calls, at least one uniformed foot patrol and one plainclothes officer are roaming the campus most of the time.
“I really think the most effective person is really the plainclothes foot beat officer or bike patrol officer,” said University police officer Eric Swanson.
Swanson, who like many University cops does both in addition to the more visible squad car patrol, said visibility is a valuable prevention tool. However, he added, it is no substitute for actually catching criminals.
“There’s an argument that goes on between (making arrests) versus high visibility patrol,” Swanson said. “I see visibility as more of a sugar pill. It’s like a Band-Aid. It’ll come off.”
Swanson spends as much time as he can patrolling in civilian clothing.
“When I’m in plainclothes, if I make an apprehension, that speaks volumes. That is so powerful in terms of deterrence,” he said. “If someone who looks like a student whips up a badge, (criminals) are saying, ‘I don’t even know who I should be looking for.'”
While Swanson makes his preference for undercover patrol clear, he said the value of a conspicuous police presence is also important.
“Absolutely, visibility makes a difference,” he said. “Should we be high visibility or more underground? We do a mix of both.”
University Police Sgt. Jo Anne Benson said another benefit of uniformed officers walking the streets is increased citizen involvement in the crime prevention process.
“What we are missing is the interaction with the community,” Benson said. “When you have a beat officer coming around regularly, people are more likely to share their observations with them; to say, ‘hey, I’ve noticed this or that going on.'”
Big 10 Restaurant and Bar supervisor Evan Trewyn said the presence of University Police provides an added level of security for the business.
“We really have a pretty good relationship with them,” said Trewyn, a University graduate. “I myself would say I feel very safe.”
Trewyn said several University Police, on and off duty, come into the Washington Avenue restaurant for dinner. He added that he even knows some of the officers by name.
“Our biggest ally is the people,” Benson said. “Foot patrols are more approachable. People are not going to hail down a squad car to talk to police unless something is going on right now.”
Police officials said bicycle patrols are also an increasingly popular and effective way of monitoring the University — if the weather conditions are favorable.
“The bike is a nice blend of high visibility, but is still covert enough to do some things,” Swanson said. “Some people think I’m just a mountain biker. And it’s quiet, it’s fast; and in the dark on that bike you’re just like a cat.”
Benson said varying patrol strategies benefit the officers as well.
“It keeps them sharp, and gives them some variety,” she said.
Benson said nine retirements in the last year have stretched the forces’ resources. Eight current trainees will soon bring the force closer to their target number of 41 officers.
But Benson said any more would be unnecessary. The officers employed now are being used as efficiently as possible.
“It’s not realistic to think we’d do much more with more officers than that,” she said.
Forty or 50 officers would allow more foot and bike patrol, Benson said. However, new technologies and methods of policing make such excesses superfluous.
For example, University police participate in the crime alert network — a nationwide network of Internet and fax warnings connecting police departments with each other.
“It’s unreal to think you can put out a cop to catch everybody,” Benson said.
University Police Sgt. Joe May said police visibility and traffic operations have grown in importance during his 30 years on the force.
“But there’s a certain sentimentality about the beat officer, and that role is somewhat romanticized,” May said.
May added that placing squad cars and uniform officers in areas where trouble is anticipated acts as a deterrent as well.
“You just can’t beat that kind of visibility,” May said. “If we are providing security for some kind of event, we’ll have squads patrolling and pulling people over where people are coming on. And when they see the lights, they’re less likely to do something they’re not supposed to.”
Traffic enforcement also generates revenue for University police.
“For years, we were part of the county system,” said Paul Tschida, assistant vice president of Health, Safety and Transportation. “All of the money that was collected for traffic tickets written by University Police went to Hennepin County.”
Tschida said since 1992, $60,000 to $70,000 per year is generated through University Police-issued traffic citations, a percentage of which is returned to the department.
“And hey, our last three burglars were caught through traffic enforcement,” May said. “So it’s not just revenue generating. It’s a deterrent.”