CINCINNATI — Colleges across the country are spending summer break re-evaluating their policing strategies after a university officer in Ohio killed an unarmed motorist away from school grounds and a court decision stripped university police in North Dakota of their off-campus authority.
A University of Cincinnati officer pulled over motorist Samuel Dubose, 43, on a thoroughfare near campus on Sunday, allegedly because he was not displaying a front license plate. The driver couldn’t produce his license, and a scuffle ensued between the officer and Dubose. When Dubose began to drive away, Officer Ray Tensing fired one round, which fatally struck Dubose in the head.
The incident has led to questions about the role of armed campus police — especially as it comes amid a fierce national debate over policing and race in America. From Ferguson to Cleveland to Baltimore, the deaths of unarmed young black men at the hands of police officers have triggered protests and made headlines around the world. Dubose is black; Tensing is white.
In the case of University of Cincinnati, the incident happened about a mile off campus, raising issues about the role campus police should play when they are off college property. The University of Cincinnati and Cincinnati’s city police have mutual aid agreements. But the university has since issued an order confining university police to campus only.
"This is a change that has been put in place as we continue to review and make assessments and work with the city on an ongoing basis,” University of Cincinnati spokeswoman Michelle Ralston said.
David Harris, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law an expert on policing, said campuses have a tricky balancing act: “If there were an incident, the first thing parents ask is: Where were the campus police? You can’t on one hand criticize campus police for not doing enough and then criticism them for doing too much. The criticism of campus police having too much weaponry is a criticism that is valid and a conversation worth having, but they have to keep campuses safe.”
Harris said the best solution for a college campus police force is good training.
“Best thing, in my opinion, is to make sure they are as fully trained as full-fledged police officers. That is the best assurance that they are handling whoever and whatever they are dealing with the kind of professionalism and respect for law,” Harris said, adding that he thinks most university departments do a good job in this regard.
Some police experts defended the role of the campus police officer. “Regardless of the infraction, if there is a violation of the law and a campus officer sees it, they will enforce the law,” said David Perry, former president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators and the chief of police and vice-president of public safety for Florida State University, a 41,000-student campus in Tallahassee.
Perry emphasized that college police forces are “actual police departments."
"Take out the word 'college,'" he said. "They have all of the legal authority that any other police department has. The only difference is that they have limited jurisdiction and can only enforce the law in certain areas.”
The case in Cincinnati is not the first time campus police powers have been questioned when it comes to the extent of their activities off-campus. The University of Cincinnati’s new rules come on the heels of a ruling by the North Dakota Supreme Court taking away the ability of campus police to make arrests off-campus. That ruling came in the wake of an off-campus DUI issued by a North Dakota State University police officer last year.
“It won’t impact us much,” said Duane Johnson, police chief of the four-person campus safety division for the 3,000-student school. Johnson said they rarely ventured off campus to issue traffic citations.
But Perry said limiting campus police to campus could have a detrimental effect on safety.
“As a professional in the field, I can say that is not a best practice, that is not happening across the country and it limits law enforcement. It is an isolated decision, I respect it, but it may not necessarily be a good one,” Perry said.
Other campus police figures have also weighed in on the issue. Miami University in Oxford, Ohio employs 28 officers to police its 20,000 students in Butler County. The college’s police chief, John McCandless, emphasized compromise and cooperation in policing his students.
McCandless said he thought university police need to have access to the same tools that a municipal department has.
“We do try to provide our officers with every opportunity to respond if there is an active shooter situation,” McCandless said.
Miami University’s officers are armed with stun guns and sidearms. They also work with the local sheriff’s office so that the university has access to equipment if needed.
“If we need a helicopter, the sheriff’s department has one we can use. We don’t need one of our own,” McCandless said.
But he added that he expected his campus officers to use discretion. “The Oxford Police Department has a zero-tolerance policy for alcohol, but if one of our Miami University officers is walking and sees a student holding a beer out in the open on a public street, I have no problem with an officer telling them to dump the beer and not giving them a citation,” McCandless said. “But if the students are making really bad choices, I don’t have a problem with our folks writing a ticket.”
Ohio State University police chief Craig Stone said he thinks a ruling like the one in North Dakota could limit his officers' ability. But his department, which serves a student body of 57,000, doesn’t routinely stop motorists off campus as happened in Cincinnati.
“We won’t make a traffic stop if it will be just a misdemeanor. But if it will cause a danger to the public like DUI, we would in fact initiate a stop,” Stone said.