Community investigators put new face on U police department

Tim Sturrock

Officer Josh Betts said his new assignment will help dispel the public’s perception of police as bogeymen who only show up when something bad happens or to bust someone.

Betts is a community investigator, a new position in the University police department designed to foster a more personal relationship between the department and staff, students and faculty.

Betts said that as a change of pace from his patrol as a regular officer, he’ll sometimes walk around, often in plain clothes, just talking to students and answering questions.

“We’re a little more approachable. They can put a face with a badge,” Betts said.

Capt. Rick Giese, who heads the Community Investigator division, said the investigators will be much more involved with the University community than before.

“We want student, staff and faculty to get to know officers on a personal basis, not just as a uniform or when they see them driving by,” he said.

Giese said he hasn’t heard of a program quite like it, although there is a trend toward community policing.

Starting in June, the five community investigators began making contacts and getting special training in various areas of police work.

“Each officer is assigned to a designated area, and they are the point of contact for that area,” Giese said.

Betts said he and his partner, Officer Troy Buhta, now cover residence halls, one of the four zones community investigators patrol.

The other assignments include the West Bank, the East Bank’s College of Liberal Arts and student groups, and research areas.

The department plans to eventually add enough community investigators to cover all areas of campus.

Starting this week an investigator will start covering the athletics department, and another will cover St. Paul campus this winter.

Buhta said the new assignment, in addition to helping him get to know people better, allows police more time to do stakeouts and pass out warning advisories.

“Before it was all on patrol – we had to try and investigate these things plus answer calls. Whereas with CID, we have time. When we see a problem, we work on that problem,” Buhta said

Last month Buhta said they arrested a man at the Como Cooperative involved in a bike theft ring and thefts. Buhta said they set up other stings in Wilson Library for backpack thieves.

As part of their beats, Buhta said, investigators attend meetings in their areas at a groups’ request. This might entail doing an educational presentation or just meeting people and learning their concerns.

For Buhta and Betts, this sometimes means socializing at hall meetings and events such as karaoke night at Sanford Hall or a charity festival at Pioneer Hall last weekend.

Chad Horsely, Pioneer Hall’s director, said having two specific contacts has had an impact on students.

After the death of a student in Pioneer last weekend, Horsely said Buhta and Betts were there daily talking to residents. “It’s helped to have them around. It’s given a sense of security to students,” he said.

He said the new relationship has helped on both sides of the coin: police and students. “They know immediately who to contact when there’s an issue of concern, and I think that’s really helped,” he said.

Betts said carrying around cell phones means officers are more available to students.

“It’s not always about a criminal incident,” Betts said. “I had a person call and thought maybe a cop would know where to eat.” Betts said he suggested a Mexican restaurant downtown.

When a Muslim student was harassed after the terrorist attacks, he called a community investigator. He wouldn’t file a police report, he simply wanted police to know what was going on.

Buhta said it gives police more knowledge of the crimes on campus.

“If there’s a party going on this weekend we’ll know where it’s at and case that area more for minor consumes and let the dorm staff know that some of their residents might come home drunk.”

Buhta said the people have been very responsive to them, though Chris Cloud, a freshman living in Territorial Hall, said he finds the added police presence violates his privacy. “They’re intruding on our experience here and our lives,” he said.

Cloud said the dorms are private residences and should be treated that way.

Julia Spedaliere, a Frontier Hall freshman, said Betts and Buhta have been respectful and make her feel safer.

“They’re not nosy at all, they don’t bother me,” Spedaliere said. “I like the fact that they’re friendly because then you can talk to them and you don’t feel bad approaching them.”


Tim Sturrock covers cops and courts and welcomes comments at
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