Two high-ranking officials at Pennsylvania State University—including the senior vice president in charge of the school’s campus police force—face charges for perjury in a widespread sex-abuse scandal. A Penn State assistant coach has been accused of molesting eight underage boys since the late-1990s, and the Penn State police seem to have been aware of the allegations for more than a decade. Are campus security officers like regular cops, or do special rules apply?
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 Penn State police force comprises 46 armed officers. According to state law, these have both the power and the duty “to prevent crime, investigate criminal acts … and carry the offender before the proper alderman, justice of the peace, magistrate or bail commissioner.” The department’s website further lists among its core values “Accountability—University Police employees accept responsibility for their decisions and for the foreseeable consequences of our actions and inaction, as well as setting an example for others.”
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
This article was adapted from a 2007 Slate Explainer on campus police officers.