Penn State scandal puts campus police in spotlight
At Penn State, as at many colleges, campus police occupy an
unusual and much-misunderstood spot on the law enforcement spectrum
– and when scandal breaks, that often leads to questions about
The latest developments in the sex abuse case there have put
university’s police front and center of some of the most prominent
unanswered questions. Did Penn State officers thoroughly and
professionally investigate allegations that former assistant coach
Jerry Sandusky sexually abused children on campus, only to have
their findings quashed by prosecutors and image-conscious
university administrators who preferred to handle things
Or were the police themselves part of a cover-up?
The grand jury report alleging sexual abuse by Sandusky and
perjury and failure to report by two university administrators –
including the vice president who oversaw the campus police –
suggests it was others who dropped the ball. But it also leaves
many questions unanswered.
Campus police conducted a ”thorough” investigation of one
victim’s allegations in 1998 along with local police and state
investigators, the report says, only to have the district attorney
decline to prosecute. And the report says university police were
never notified by anyone at the university of assistant coach Mike
McQueary’s report he’d seen Sandusky rape a boy in a campus shower.
While former vice president of finance Gary Schultz oversaw the
police department, he is charged with breaking the law by failing
to report the accusation to actual university police officers or
But in an email obtained earlier this week by The Associated
Press, McQueary insists he did ”have discussions with police and
with the official at the university in charge of police.” That
contradicts the grand jury report, however, and on Wednesday both
police departments reiterated they had no record of any report by
The grand jury report also leaves ambiguity about the tone and
substance of the investigation campus police did conduct in 1998.
For instance, when campus police Detective Ronald Schreffler and a
state child welfare investigator interviewed Sandusky, the report
says Sandusky admitted showering with the victim and ”that it was
wrong. Detective Schreffler advised Sandusky not to shower with any
child again and he said that he would not.”
For decades, campus police had reputations as Keystone Kops who
couldn’t hack it as ”real” police and who spent most of their
energy breaking up fights and busting keg parties, turning more
serious matters over to local government authorities.
But in the last 20 years – and especially since the 2007
Virginia Tech shootings – things have changed so much that
sometimes the reverse is now true. Most large universities, at
least, have transformed their police forces into thoroughly
professionalized forces that are very often better staffed,
trained, equipped and even armed than their budget-strapped local
counterparts. Officers often are former local police who want
better pay and more support.
In small jurisdictions with large universities, local
authorities often turn to university police for help. Penn State
has 46 full-time armed officers, compared to 65 in surrounding
State College. And because local police have broader
responsibilities, campus police often have far more time and
resources to conduct thorough investigations.
Another misconception: Campus police aren’t real police. In many
jurisdictions, including at Penn State, they’re functionally no
different than local officers – sworn to enforce the law, and
authorized to conduct investigations and refer matters to local
prosecutors. The grand jury report makes clear Penn State officials
could have met their obligation to report child sex abuse
allegations simply by notifying campus police officers.
But there are important differences. Campus police face
additional regulations under the federal Clery Act, which requires
them to publicly report campus crimes and warn students when they
happen. The Department of Education is now investigating Penn State
for possible Clery Act violations. Universities also face an array
of civil requirements under Title IX governing how they must
conduct sexual assault investigations, which could also come into
play at Penn State.
Another difference particular to Penn State: because of a state
law and its unusual status as a ”state related” but not fully
public institution, university police records are not open to the
public, as municipal police reports would be.
Indeed, perhaps the biggest difference is campus police work for
institutions – not elected officials and taxpayers – and often
report their findings into parallel campus judicial systems that
are typically set up to handle student infractions.
And therein lie inevitable concerns that campus police can be
sucked into a culture that prefers to handle matters in-house and
sweep embarrassing crimes under the rug.
”When you’re dealing with some crime on the campus, it
certainly raises some political concerns,” said Douglas Tuttle, a
campus safety expert who led the University of Delaware police
force for 12 years and now teaches there. But he points out any
police department could face similar pressures.
”If the city police get called and have to have some member of
the (city) council arrested, that raises some of those same
political questions,” he said.
The two most high-profile alleged failures and cover-ups by
campus police took place at Eastern Michigan University and
Virginia Tech. Shortly after an EMU undergraduate was found dead in
her dorm room in 2006, officials released a statement saying there
was ”no reason to suspect foul play.” In fact, there were already
clear signs she had been raped and murdered. The university
eventually paid $350,000 in fines. EMU’s president, public safety
director and a vice president all lost their jobs.
Virginia Tech, meanwhile, plans to appeal $55,000 in federal
fines levied against the school because its police allegedly failed
to alert the campus quickly enough during the 2007 mass shooting
that killed 32 students and faculty members.
Michael Dorn, a former university police officer and now
executive director of Safe Havens International, a nonprofit group
focused on campus security, said many universities – along with
countless K-12 schools and religious institutions – remain poisoned
by cultures that send a message to lower-level employees that
preserving reputation is paramount.
”This culture, it’s a decision with the leadership of an
organization,” he said. ”It comes back to decision-making and a
culture where people in authority are keeping a proper focus on
serving the people they’re supposed to serve.”