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article / August 15, 2023

What campus police are and are not: 7 important distinctions

Exterior of a university building, with an expansive lawn. There is a group of students by the entrance and a family on a campus tour in the foreground.

How protecting a campus differs from municipal police work

Almost every college campus in the US has its own police department – the latest report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts it at 75%, though that number is now likely higher. Yet, the role of campus police, its jurisdiction and its powers are often misunderstood by the general public and even the campus communities these departments serve. Here are some similarities and differences between campus police and local law enforcement agencies.

Brief overview of campus police departments

Campus police are a law enforcement task force created to serve the needs of a campus community. These police departments are funded by universities directly, which makes campus police officers university employees, much like tenured professors or administrators.

Yale University is credited with being the first higher education institution to establish a police department in 1894. But it wasn’t until the 1960s, when protests over racial inequality at colleges and universities led to widely-publicized and tragic outcomes that modern campus police departments appeared. After the unrest settled down, university officials wanted to prevent history from repeating itself by investing in their own police departments, with officers who were specifically trained to work with young adults and their families.

“Are campus police real police?”

Yes. Many campus police officers come from municipal police departments and have very similar training and educational backgrounds. Campus police are sworn officers who are given powers to enforce federal, state and local laws, in addition to any campus-specific policies. These include powers to arrest suspects and carry firearms. Campus security departments also employ non-sworn staff for peacekeeping, community projects and safety patrolling. Sworn campus police officers may use the same de-escalation tools as municipal police officers (including TASER devices) and employ body-worn cameras to increase transparency and help with investigations. And for the most part, they are able to respond to similar types of calls, like active shooters, assaults or domestic disputes.

However, there are significant differences in how campus police are trained to operate, along with a slightly different ethos and approach to policing methods.

Campus police vs “regular” police: 7 key differences

Campus police jurisdiction

Campus police operate in a much more limited jurisdiction than other law enforcement. The specifics vary from campus to campus and depend on agreements with local law enforcement agencies as well as state regulations. Some campuses give their departments full police powers in the county in which their university is located, which means that campus police officers can respond to calls and conduct activities like traffic stops if they witness something suspicious off campus.

For other schools, the jurisdiction is limited to the campus and immediate areas and/or to specifically designated places where university-recognized organizations congregate (fraternity and sorority houses, entertainment venues or community spaces). For the most part, campus police departments have mutual agreements with local law enforcement, and will work together with them to respond to calls and make decisions on jurisdictional issues.

More flexible disciplinary options

Municipal police officers have to follow strict procedures for managing calls and reporting incidents. Campus police have a bit more leeway in how they want to handle disciplinary action. For example, a campus police department may report minor incidents to the Dean of Students instead of pursuing legal action that would result in a criminal record for the accused student. Instead of going through a criminal process, the student may be suspended or otherwise disciplined outside of the justice system. This flexibility allows campus police departments to focus more on remediation than punishment.

Greater focus on crime prevention

Since campus police work at and for universities, there’s more emphasis on education and crime prevention. Police officers on college campuses may teach safety workshops and self-defense lessons, or provide safety patrols to students taking classes at night. Municipal law enforcement agencies may also host such events but usually don’t have as much time or as many resources to dedicate to civilian education. Campus police also work with a smaller community than local law enforcement and because the student population changes every year, there’s a continuous need to provide education about community standards.

Compliance training

Campus police officers receive specialized training for compliance regulations concerning higher education institutions, such as the Clery Act. The Clery Act requires colleges and universities that receive public funding to issue an annual crime report. The schools are also required to designate campus security authority (CSA) personnel who are required to report crimes to the campus police if a victim confides in them (this is also sometimes referred to as mandatory reporting). Campus police must understand how the reporting procedures for Clery crimes work before they can begin their duties.

Similarly, they need to understand applicable regulations under Title IX (ensuring equal and fair treatment for all genders in an educational setting), HIPAA (securing protected health information) and FERPA (providing for student record privacy).

A higher percentage of peacekeeping officers

All police departments have non-sworn officers (employees who don’t have to take the police oath of office), but campus police tend to have a higher percentage of personnel focused on peacekeeping and community projects, and also often employ student workers, which means they have a higher percentage of non-sworn staff who are trained to intervene in conflicts without the use of force. Peace officers can still wear body-worn cameras to capture any potential criminal activity, but may not carry firearms.

Emergency management

Because they are in the immediate area, campus police are likely to arrive on the scene of an emergency before outside medical personnel who need to travel to get to campus. Thus, campus police departments are the de facto first responders for universities and receive extensive training on first aid and emergency response, including managing an active shooter situation, inclement weather or any other incident.

Customer service

While all law enforcement agencies have to interact with the public, there is a greater emphasis on providing customer service at campus police departments because they often have to work with families and staff members who are personally invested in incidents involving their child or student. This dynamic requires a careful balancing of priorities when managing investigations. Barring serious offenses, the focus is usually on student remediation and having open conversations with all parties, which requires tact and good listening skills.

Axon helps campus police departments work more transparently

Axon campus safety solutions allow officers to focus on serving their campus communities through innovative transparency tools (such as body-worn cameras), intuitive software and de-escalation methods that limit the use of force. To learn more, take a look at Axon’s higher education page.