Campus police and conflicts of interest

The mayor of the small municipality of Norway, South Carolina, population 389, in Orangeburg County, (where I have been living for the spring semester, as a visiting professor at Claflin University) was arrested recently for impersonating a police officer. Jim Preacher is out on $15,000 bond and awaits trial in June.

The story begins in January, when state troopers stopped and ticketed Preacher for speeding. Moments later, Preacher turned his car around, and with lights flashing and siren blaring on his own car, pulled the trooper over. Preacher asked the trooper for his license and accused him of interfering with a police office, namely himself.

Preacher says that he had the right to stop the trooper because he was acting in his capacity as town constable. The arrest warrant for Preacher maintains otherwise, saying that the mayor was not a police officer and had violated the law when representing himself as such.

In fact, Preacher was being paid a double salary, as both mayor and constable of Norway, after he had ordered the town clerk to make such payments despite the lack of approval by the town council. In addition to being arrested for impersonating a police office, Preacher

The state’s attorney general offered an opinion on Preacher position as town constable, saying that the mayor could not serve as both constable and mayor as this would create a conflict of interest that violated state law.

That ruling seems reasonable and it gets me to think about campus police departments, which have been in the news recently with the sex abuse scandal at Penn State and the pepper spraying of protesting students at UC Davis.

I was surprised to find that at Claflin, campus police carry guns. They are deputized as full police officers and act as such. They are responsible for the safety of campus students and personnel. The Harvard police website, for example, notes, “With the exception of a couple of crimes, such as a homicide, we have primary jurisdiction over all crimes occurring on our property.”

Many colleges created their own police departments in the late 1960s, thinking that universities were better able to handle student unrest than local police forces. This came in the wake of killings of students at Kent State and nation-wide student riots. State police killed three students in Orangeburg during demonstrations against a segregated bowling alley in 1968 but this wasn’t the impetus for creating an independent police force for the Claflin campus. The CU police force is only a couple of years ago and was established after the massacre on Virginia Tech University. The thinking is that a college police force could respond more quickly than city or town cops.

And there is a campus shooting story that is in the news here recently, in Denmark, South Carolina. At student at Denmark Tech, a two year college, was shot in the leg by an unknown assailant. The campus police are investigating the case and questions about the incident have been referred to the college’s interim president.

It is time to rethink the chain of command for campus police, for most campus police departments are responsible to the university administration. This creates a potential conflict of interest in which the administrator in charge, who is not a police officer him or herself, is caught between needing to maintain a good image of the school and acting as the chief law enforcement officer. In such an arrangement, there is pressure to take care of trouble quietly and otherwise skirt around the edges of real justice.

Far better, it seems to me, is to have campus police under the aegis of the local police department, which then can act independently of the competing needs of the school. There is too much pressure on college administrators to engage in public relations at the expense of public safety and fairness to both victims and accused.

How can you trust the (campus) police to do their job as law enforcers when they report to those who hold their purse strings?




One thought on “Campus police and conflicts of interest

  1. You should also look at the similar relationship between transit police and the agencies who employ them. I am told that any time there is a 911 call locally, which involves a transit agency in any way, the dispatcher hands the response off to the transit police. This applies *even when there is an accusation of assault against the transit employee*. It sounds like the transit police are primarily concerned with protecting the interests of the (privatized) agency above all else, and that the institutions of public authority are complicit.

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