Strong arm of the law on campus under scrutiny

December 7, 2007

Accusations of brutality, cover-ups and unaccountability have dogged the private police forces patrolling universities. Jon Marcus reports. When Andrew Meyer refused to relinquish the microphone during the question-and-answer session of a speech by former US presidential candidate John Kerry at the University of Florida's Gainesville campus, things very quickly turned ugly.

Mr Meyer's rambling comments during the September event were critical of Senator Kerry, called for the impeachment of George W. Bush, and included a colourful word to describe former President Bill Clinton's involvement with a White House intern.

After a minute and 20 seconds of this, police stepped in - first two, then a third, then a fourth - and tried to pull Mr Meyer from the room. When he resisted, one of the officers shocked him with a Taser stun gun.

Mr Meyer was videotaped shouting, as he was taken to be arrested: "Don't tase me, bro!"

The comment instantly spread around the nation, becoming part of popular lingo and even ending up on T-shirts, while the video was viewed online nearly 3 million times. And in combination with other incidents, the case focused sudden attention on the security forces at US universities.

Mr Meyer is an undergraduate at the University of Florida, and it was university police officers who arrested him. Like most US campus police officers, they are authorised to carry guns, conduct investigations, make arrests and do everything else that municipal police can do.

Yet university police often operate with far less accountability than public police departments. And universities prefer not to draw attention to crime on campus for fear of harming enrolments. Several recently disclosed instances of alleged police misconduct, unreported crimes and blocked access to campus police reports now may force a change in their methods.

"A lot of lines are being crossed" by university police, said Gabriel Pendas, the president of the United States Student Association. "It's egregious when we see things like what happened at the University of Florida. These are college students, not criminals."

The Florida incident followed another at the University of California, Los Angeles, in which a campus police officer used a Taser gun to stun a student of Iranian descent who declined to show his identification late at night in the library. The arresting officer, a former Marine, had already been the subject of several complaints about unnecessary use of force.

At the University of Maryland's College Park campus, university police arrested three people at a party of mostly black students, who allege that officers waved their nightsticks, fired pepper spray and brandished their guns, all without cause.

Several Brown University students have filed complaints alleging brutality by police on the Providence, Rhode Island, campus after being stopped and, in one case, injured by campus police. One officer reportedly shouted "Yo momma" at one of the students who was black.

Each of these incidents has been met with protests. Three hundred students at the University of Florida gathered to demand that charges be filed against the officers in the Meyer case and that Tasers be barred from campus. Some four hundred students and faculty protested the Taser incident at UCLA, marching on that university's police headquarters, where they were met by officers in riot gear. Outraged students at Brown, wearing bandages in solidarity with an arrested student who had been hurt, confronted officials with chants of "stop the brutality".

The Florida officers were placed on leave but reinstated after an investigation said they acted properly. An investigation of the UCLA case also exonerated the police. Brown has agreed to reforms, including better office training and keeping records of incidents in which people are stopped by police and asked for identification.

But critics say other incidents of campus police misconduct may be occurring because campus police departments have little public accountability.

Although they have the same powers as the police in surrounding towns and cities, university police - especially at private universities - are rarely asked to release details of crimes or even allegations of misconduct against them other than to record superficial information in daily logs.

When a Boston University campus police officer allegedly hit a student while making an illegal turn in his police car in October, the student newspaper was given a report by the campus police department with much of the information blacked out. Deleted data included the fact that a university policeman was involved even though there were many witnesses to the incident.

Although its police department can operate on city streets, carry guns and make arrests, BU is a private university and is not legally bound to release reports of crimes.

Increasing criticism has resulted in several legal proceedings and a number of proposed new laws.

"If they take on the mantle of state power, they have an obligation to the public to disclose information about the state functions they have been authorised to perform," said S. Daniel Carter, senior vice-president of Security on Campus, a private organisation set up by the parents of Jeanne Anne Clery, a student who was raped and killed at Lehigh University in 1986. Investigation later showed that the university turned out to have covered up 38 violent crimes on its Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, campus in the three years before Ms Clery's murder.

"You've got private colleges and universities that can employ state-sworn police officers who carry guns and make arrests but don't have to disclose details about the crimes they're dealing with in the same way their counterparts in municipal police departments have to," Mr Carter said.

This means students and staff on these campuses "are less able to hold their police department accountable for the steps they're taking to protect them", he added.

The organisation that represents university police departments, the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, did not respond to requests for comment.

Security on Campus has pushed successfully for a law under which all universities must annually disclose the number of various crimes that occur on their campuses. But many institutions are believed to obscure the information for fear that they might come to be considered unsafe.

"You don't want your community to be perceived as dangerous," Mr Carter said. "That puts you at a marketing disadvantage. Anything that would cause students to go somewhere else would affect (universities') bottom line."

This year Eastern Michigan University was found by the Federal Government to have violated the new law by failing to make public the news that an Eastern Michigan student was murdered in her dormitory. The university told the student's parents and friends that no foul play was suspected. Its president, vice-president and police chief were fired when the truth was disclosed.

Elsewhere, universities continue to resist moves to force them to release reports of crimes. In Massachusetts, Harvard University fended off a three-year legal battle by the student newspaper that would have forced it to turn over incident reports.

Lawyers for a female student at Mercer University in Georgia failed in their efforts to force the university police department to release reports of its investigation. A daily newspaper in Ithaca, New York, the city that is home to Cornell University, is trying to get police records from that school, and a former student has sued to get campus police records from Taylor University in Upland, Indiana. In every case, the schools have argued that they do not have to make the information public because they are private institutions.

"That argument is somewhat fallacious," Mr Carter said. "They're making a distinction between what are state functions and what are non-state functions. These are private universities using state police power but claiming to be private."

That exception may change. Legislators in Massachusetts and Georgia are considering laws that would require the release of records by any university police with state powers of arrest.

"There still seems to be a feeling on the part of many campus police that being completely forthright about what's happening on campus somehow harms the reputation of the campus," said Mike Hiestand, counsel to the Student Press Law Center, which often fights for campus police records.

"The biggest problem is that students can't protect themselves against crime if they don't know that it exists," Mr Hiestand said.

"The other problem is the same one that exists with any government agency that's been given a fair amount of power: you need to make sure they exercise that power reasonably and appropriately," he said.

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