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

divided loyalties.

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

in-house?

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

other authorities.

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

McQueary.

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.”