Like their municipal counterparts, university campus police forces have been accused of excesses ranging from violence to racial bias—but their operations have rarely been given the same scrutiny.
A new report aims to fill the gaps, with data about a branch of law enforcement that affects some 7.5 million students in the U.S.
The report, prepared by Civilytics Consulting LLC, a Boston, Ma., data consulting firm, is described as the “first-ever look” at campus police staffing levels, arrest patterns and arrest trends.
In 2016, the last year for which figures are available, Campus Police Departments (CPDs) operated in 68 percent of American universities and colleges—including both public and private schools—with 2,500 or more students.
Some 879 campus police forces employed more than 15,000 sworn police officers with the right to bear arms and make arrests. (An additional 9,000 employees were civilians.)
That means “the presidents of many American colleges directly oversee a police force with the authority to search, detain, arrest, and even use deadly force in order to secure the campus, administer university policy, and enforce the law,” writes Jared E. Knowles, the author of the report, “Policing the American University.”
But few are subject to the same standards of accountability and transparency under which municipal forces operate, Knowles added.
“Unlike municipal police, CPDs are not responsible directly to an elected official like a mayor, but instead to university administrators and their boards, to state legislatures, and to state police training and standards boards,” Knowles wrote.
“These venues are less open to members of the public and more difficult to influence directly. Additionally, CPDs often receive special protections like exemption from public record laws, making it even harder for the public to hold them accountable.”
Although several widely publicized incidents have brought increased attention to campus policing, such as the 2011 pepper-spraying of protesters at the University of California, Davis, there are few available statistics that provide an in-depth look.
Unlike municipal police, CPDs do not traditionally report arrest or crime figures to the FBI. Nevertheless, Knowles extrapolated Bureau of Justice Statistics figures and the FBI’s annual Uniformed Crime Reports to generate a preliminary picture.
- In 2016, some 66,205 total arrests were reported by the 586 CPDs that reported arrest data that year.
- More than half the arrests were for three offense categories: violations of liquor laws, marijuana possession, and driving under the influence (DUI);
- The number of marijuana arrests in 2016 by campus police was three times the proportion of arrests by municipal or county police.
(The figures do not take into account the trend by states towards legalization of recreational marijuana which accelerated after 2016.)
But Knowles’ figures also show that although the number of on-campus arrests has decreased over the 20-year period between 1996 and 2016, the racial disproportion in arrests has grown.
“Almost all categories show a notable increase in the proportion of those arrested by CPDs who are black, with a notable exception of opium possession,” Knowles wrote. “In all cases there [is] also a greater volume of arrests of black individuals made by CPDs in 2016 than in 1996.”
At the same time, Knowles said, arrests for rape and other forms of sexual assault have not matched reported increases in those crimes on campus.
Less than 3 percent of rapes investigated by campus police in 2016 resulted in an arrest, despite an estimated 29.1 percent increase of rapes on campuses reported to the FBI, said Knowles, acknowledging that university police departments may have deferred to municipal cops with more resources for investigating many of these sex crimes.
Lethal violence against civilians took the lives of four students in the period examined by Knowles, and left another wounded.
- Samuel Debose–killed by a University of Cincinnati Police officer (2013)
- Tyrone West–killed by a Morgan State University Police officer during a traffic stop (2013)
- Cameron Redus–shot and killed by a University of the Incarnate Word Police officer; (December 2013)
- Antonio Guzman Lopez–shot and killed by San Jose State Police officers (February 2014)
- Charles Thomas–shot, but not killed, by a University of Chicago Police officer (April 2018)
“These assaults, along with the many other lower-profile incidents of suspected racial profiling, excessive force, and militarized restriction of student protest on campus have raised questions about who is accountable for the policies and conduct of campus police departments,” Knowles wrote.
More broadly, Knowles noted that the jurisdiction of most CPDs extends beyond the boundaries of their campuses, to off-campus housing, public spaces and nearby roads.
That should make the lack of sufficient data even more of a concern to campus administrators, policymakers and the parents of students, Knowles wrote.
“Campus police departments are an important feature of the American law enforcement landscape, but their role in the broader criminal justice system is often overlooked,” he said.
Civilytics Consulting LLC is a data science consulting firm in Boston that describes itself as seeking “to improve the public’s access to information” on public policy.
For those interested in more information, Civilytics has published a companion Campus Policing Toolkit, containing specific data about policing at 837 campus police departments across the country, aimed at “beginning a conversation with community members about how best to provide for the safety and security of their college and surrounding environment.”
The full report can be downloaded here.
Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.