Daisy Torres wants to pursue a career in law enforcement after she graduates from the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa. So, when she was looking for student employment opportunities, she discovered that the university hired students to work in its public safety dispatch center.
She applied for a position, but wasn’t hired. That didn’t deter her, however, and during her sophomore year of college in 2016 she found out about another opportunity for undergraduates to work with the University’s Department of Public Safety: becoming a student security officer.
Torres filled out an application, interviewed, passed a background check, and was offered a position as an officer that fall, patrolling the campus and interacting with students.
“At first, the whole thing was intimidating, but the officers have been very helpful and supportive. They guide you,” Torres says. “They encourage you to ask questions to make sure you don’t mess up.”
The experience has also offered her a chance to see what a career in law enforcement might look like and gain a better understanding of how first responders interact with students and respond to incidents.
“As a regular person, you just see the ambulance come or you see the officer coming to take care of something—but going through the training you realize this is hard work,” she explains. “It definitely humanizes the process, so it’s really fun for me. It’s fun getting to know the people, the officers you are working with. You get to see the person behind the badge.”
That’s the goal of the Student Security Officer Program at the University of Iowa, which was created in the fall of 2016 when Assistant Vice President and Director of Public Safety Scott Beckner was hired to lead the Public Safety Department.
Beckner has spent more than 30 years in law enforcement, including 25 in higher education law enforcement with roles at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, Georgia; Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, West Virginia; and Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan.
“I believe in a community policing philosophy, meaning that our police and security officers need to go where the students are comfortable to build positive relationships with them, even if it’s not the environment in which the officers themselves are most comfortable,” Beckner says. “This enables both parties to establish meaningful communication and receive better feedback from both the law enforcement officers and the students.”
The University of Iowa covers 1,880 acres that straddle the Iowa River. Approximately 33,000 students are enrolled each semester, and most freshman undergraduates live on campus.
Protecting the campus community is the University of Iowa Public Safety Department, which has two major divisions: the police division and the security division. The police division is made up of roughly 45 armed state-certified police officers who patrol campus around the clock. The security division is made up of nine full-time security officers.
The university also has a dispatch center, which is the main dispatch center for campus 911 calls and the back-up dispatch center for the county.
When Beckner came on board in 2016, the university hired students as dispatchers in the dispatch center and also as security staff at the University of Iowa Art Museum. Based on his experience at prior institutions, Beckner wanted to expand the university’s use of student employees for campus security positions.
“Hiring student security officers is another layer of our community policing approach,” Beckner says. “It gives our officers another opportunity to connect with students to get a pulse of what’s happening on campus from the student perspective.”
With this mind-set, Beckner instructed the department to create the Student Security Officer Program to hire students to be the eyes and ears of campus public safety.
“I’m not afraid to try new things, and I’m not afraid to fail,” Beckner explains. “I think it’s just as valuable to know what doesn’t work as what does work, and you don’t always know until you try. So many people in law enforcement are afraid to fail because of the spotlight we’re in, and we have to learn to get beyond that mind-set.”
To push the program forward, Security Supervisor Beau Hartsock was pulled off his regular assignment at the time—head of security at the University of Iowa Art Museum—and brought in to recruit students and interview them for officer positions.
To recruit students, Hartsock and others in the department used the university’s Hire a Hawk program that lists student employment opportunities and attended the campus job fair. They also went to Introduction to Criminology classes—the first core class in the Criminology, Law, and Justice major—to contact students who might be interested in the program.
“The Intro to Criminology is a prerequisite to the program that every student coming in has to go through,” Hartsock explains. “We go to those classes and do a 10-minute pitch of what we have to offer and tell them about the department. If they wish to apply, they can.”
Within one month, the program had 30 students on staff as security officers, with a peak in the middle of the academic year of 75 student officers. The students completed training conducted by full-time security staff on mandated issues, including radio operation, the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, bloodborne pathogens, and CPR.
The student officers were then trained for each of their particular assignments. These assignments included dorm patrol, building checks, the art museum, athletic events security, the campus transportation service called Nite Ride, and the Hawkeye Storage Lot.
“We don’t train everybody on everything; we train on an as-needed basis in accordance with whatever assignment they are working,” Hartsock says.
This is because each assignment has different requirements. For instance, students assigned to Nite Ride—a transportation service that provides rides for students between 7:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m.—act as dispatchers, taking calls and managing the app that sends the vehicle out to pick students up.
Dorm patrol requires that students walk the dormitories, using a pipe check-in system from Guard1Plus to track their progress throughout the campus. “A student could potentially walk five or six miles a night, especially on the weekends, looking for any safety concerns, damage to property, and things like that,” Hartsock says.
Student officers have similar responsibilities when they are assigned to the libraries or the Voxman Music Building, which is a new building on campus that houses valuable musical equipment.
The art museum job is a“sought-after” assignment, Hartsock says, because students sit at a desk, greet people who come into the building, and keep an eye on the building’s video camera feeds, making it a relatively low-key assignment.
The other assignment for students is Hawkeye Storage Lot, which is vulnerable to thefts from parked cars because it is separated from the main campus, Hartsock says.
“We have students that also sit out there and do patrols every half hour in an electric car around the lot for about 10 minutes,” he explains.
Students on patrol wear yellow polos and black pants and have utility belts with pipes for the check-in system, masks for CPR, and radios to reach the dispatch office. If they notice suspicious activity or an incident unfolding, student officers are instructed to radio into the dispatch office and a police officer or security officer will be sent to their location to respond.
“First and foremost, students are trained to be the eyes and ears of the university only,” according to Hartsock. “In no way are they to physically or verbally intervene…we train them on what could potentially get them in danger, and to use their best judgment.”
So far, the university has had no incidents of harm to a student security officer while on duty, according to Hartsock.
“We have the benefit of our student security officers carrying radios—the same exact radios that our police officers and our full-time security officers carry—so they are literally a key click away from our dispatch,” he adds. “And a lot of times our police officers are scanning our student security officer channels, and they can start heading that way even before it is actually dispatched by a dispatcher.”
When Torres was initially hired, her friends and fellow students’ first question was: Do you get to carry a gun? Student security officers are not armed, but they are taken seriously by their peers and this support has helped them build relationships on campus.
“I’ve been the night dispatcher for Nite Ride and [my friends] don’t bother calling the phones because they know I’m working, so they’ll text me and say, ‘Is there a chance you could send a Nite Ride my way?’” Torres says. “They think it’s interesting because they get to see me in the dorm sometimes and say, ‘I know the security officer.’”
Building this sense of community helps give credibility to the campus police because the student security officers get to know police officers as real people, says Police Captain Mark Bullock.
“Kids, when they talk about these officers as people rather than as a profession, it takes away some of those barriers that may have previously been there,” he explains.
Another benefit to having the student security officers on patrol is that it can make reporting a sensitive crime, such as a sexual assault, easier for students because they are talking to a peer instead of a police officer.
“If it is a sensitive crime, and if you have a familiar face or a peer who is part of an organization like ours, we would hope that would make reporting that crime just a little bit easier,” Bullock says. “It’s a well-known thing that sexual assaults are underreported. We would like to do anything we can to make the occurrences go down—ideally eliminate them completely. But at least knowing about them is a step in the right direction.”
For less serious offenses, such as smoking in a dorm room, Bullock says students are much more likely to bring that up to a student security officer on dorm patrol than to a security officer.
Students are “not going to be as open to saying that to a police officer as they would to one of their peers,” he adds. “General quality of life issues within our campus have been easier to report by having a peer to talk to.”
And in instances like smoking in a prohibited space, student security officers have several options on how to handle the situation, including reporting it to the residence assistant on duty, the front desk of the building they are in, or dispatch for a police response, if necessary.
Student security officers are all equipped with a radio, "so it’s a direct line of access to the police so information is coming in in real time,” according to Bullock. “There’s nothing lost in translation.”
The Student Security Officer Program has been viewed as a success so far, and the university plans to expand it during the fall of 2017 to hire approximately 125 student officers for the academic year.
“We’re actually getting ready to do a very large hiring surge of possibly 40 to 50 more students just to cover one assignment that’s in the works right now,” says Hartsock, who declined to provide more detail about what the assignment was.
The department itself is also making a push to have student security officers, police officers, and security staff be increasingly more involved with campus life in their off hours. One initiative is paying for staff to participate in intramural sports on campus.
“So you’re interacting with the university community, humanizing us in the sense that students get to know us personally, see a familiar face out of uniform as well as in uniform,” Hartsock explains. “Being more approachable and being looked at in a way that we’re really genuinely here to help.”
All of this goes back to Beckner’s focus of creating a community policing approach to campus security at the university.
“If University of Iowa officers can begin to know students on a personal level—when it’s not in the context of punitive action—I believe we’ll be able to solve more problems proactively,” he says. “One of my early goals was to begin to break down the barriers between students and campus police, and I think this program is helping us do that.”