What Can Campus Cops Do?

How much power do they really have?

Virginia Tech President Charles Steger, left, and Virginia Tech chief of police W.R. Flinchum

At least 33 people were killed in two separate shootings at Virginia Tech on Monday morning. The second round of violence began at 9:15 a.m., while campus police were still investigating the killings that happened two hours earlier. Are campus security officers just like real cops?

It depends on the school. Most large colleges and universities set up full-fledged police departments on school grounds. These sworn officers have the same authority as any other members of the police—they carry weapons, make arrests, and enforce local, state, and federal laws. Smaller schools can contract out their security services to private firms, which supply the same sort of uniformed guards you might see at your local mall. Private security guards may be licensed to carry firearms, batons, or Tasers, but in general, they’ll be limited to making citizen’s arrests and detaining suspects until real police officers can arrive on the scene.

The Virginia Tech police department comprises several dozen sworn officers and has received national accreditation from a private company known as the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies Inc. (To get the CALEA seal of approval, a campus police department must demonstrate adherence to 459 standards—and fork over a few thousand dollars.) The Virginia Tech police Web site lists the department’s primary activities as “patrol, investigation, and crime prevention,” as well as answering “calls for assistance such as vehicle breakdowns or keys locked in vehicles.”

Each state sets its own rules on campus security. Public schools are often permitted to hire sworn officers, while private schools face more restrictions. In California, for example, a private-school police officer has full enforcement powers only when he or she is working. (Public-school cops can make arrests 24 hours a day.) Virginia allows both public and private schools to set up sworn campus police departments.

Yale hired the first official campus cops in 1894 after a series of escalating town-gown conflicts in New Haven, Conn. But modern campus policing didn’t take shape until a surge in university enrollment after World War II made campus life more dangerous and unruly. Within a few decades, professional police departments were commonplace at large universities. According to statistics compiled by the Department of Justice in 1995, almost every school in America with more than 20,000 students employed sworn officers on campus. (Ninety-five percent used armed policemen.) Smaller, private schools were more likely to use hired security guards, but 43 percent had full-fledged cops.

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Explainer thanks Christopher Blake of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators and Detective Sgt. Sally Miller of the Sonoma County Junior College District Police Department.