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What happens when college cops patrol off campus?

University police officers are armed and capable of arresting people far from their schools, but they don’t necessarily answer to municipal governments.

Police in Portland, Ore., stood guard outside a bar in 2018 after officers from Portland State University shot and killed a Black man who was trying to break up a fight.
Police in Portland, Ore., stood guard outside a bar in 2018 after officers from Portland State University shot and killed a Black man who was trying to break up a fight.Shane Dixon/Associated Press

Naa Ashitey spent her teenage years one block away from the University of Chicago, where she’s now a senior. One of her earliest memories from when her family moved into the neighborhood about 10 years ago is seeing cops from the University of Chicago police department roam the streets. “I remember seeing them patrolling around my house,” she says. “They used to patrol around every day.”

Her parents were happy about the police presence in the neighborhood, especially when they first moved in. It made them feel safe. But as Ashitey grew up, and after she enrolled at the university, her own feelings about the school’s private police force began to change. “One of the first times I got to see people’s fear of UCPD was when, in my first year of college, a student got shot by [a cop],” Ashitey says.

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A 21-year-old student, a history and political science major at the university, allegedly charged at a campus officer with a metal pipe before the officer shot him in the shoulder. The student — whose family said he was suffering from a mental health problem — was subsequently charged with aggravated assault on a police officer. The incident, which occurred off campus in 2018, led students to ask why a university police officer would use a gun rather than a nonlethal device like a taser. It turned out that the university’s police force was armed with guns but not tasers. (That has since changed.)

Other schools have had even worse episodes. Cops from Oregon’s Portland State University, for example, shot a 45-year-old Black man nine times, killing him outside a bar adjacent to campus buildings; the University of Cincinnati’s police department is alone responsible for the killings of four Black men since 1997; and a Georgia Tech officer shot and killed a student last year.

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Because of incidents like these — and with the entire country reckoning with racist police practices and implementing reforms — students like Ashitey are questioning the role of university police. Campus police might often be perceived as anodyne compared with their public counterparts, mostly occupied with petty thefts or monitoring school events like tailgates and graduation ceremonies. But in reality, private campus police forces have been gradually amassing more power — with some acquiring military weapons like armored vehicles and grenade launchers — all while remaining less accountable than public law-enforcement agencies. Strange as it may seem, college police officers patrol and stop and arrest people well beyond school grounds even though they are tasked with serving the interests of their universities, not the general public.

In some cases, campus police forces become the main law enforcement agencies around their schools. In 2014, Detroit’s Wayne State University police department made 61 percent of arrests in the neighborhood outside the school, according to The New York Times.

These university police agencies, in other words, are just like their public counterparts except for one key difference: Campus police chiefs tend to report to the university president, not a mayor, city council, or any other democratic public institution. (Even at a public university, where campus police are technically considered state actors and not private entities, officers still generally report to the university and serve its interests.) As a result, college police departments are less accountable than public agencies.

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Ashitey says the University of Chicago uses its police department as a selling point to prospective students — especially affluent white students — whose families worry about sending their kids to school on the South Side of Chicago. “When I was admitted, we had these open houses for admitted students, and I went to two or three,” Ashitey says. “There were so many times when parents — primarily white parents — would ask, ‘Is Hyde Park safe? Is it safe to live here?’” Ashitey would tell them that she grew up in the area and that she never had problems. But each time someone asked that question, Ashitey says, the tour guide would respond with something along the lines of, “Oh yeah, it’s so safe. We have our own private police force that patrols and keeps the area safe.”

The answer that the tour guides would give was telling, and it conveyed a simple message: Campus police protect the school from its own supposedly dangerous neighborhood. But many people who live near colleges all over the country see campus police not as protection but as a threat.

Campus police officers have been known to racially profile and harass residents around their schools, making people who live close to a college feel like suspects instead of neighbors, especially if they are Black or brown. Last month, for example, a Black teen on his way home from work was pulled over for a broken taillight by a police officer from the University of Alabama. According to the 17-year-old’s mother, the cop proceeded to ask the teen if he had any drugs or a “dead prostitute” in the car.

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Episodes like this one should be especially disconcerting to civilians and lawmakers because campus police forces often have jurisdiction over more residents who aren’t affiliated with their schools than those who are. For example, the University of Chicago police department’s jurisdiction includes over 65,000 residents. Only 15,000 of them are students. The university’s police officers can find themselves more than two miles north of the main campus — several neighborhoods over from Hyde Park, where the university is located — and still be within their designated patrolling area.

In Massachusetts, campus police’s patrolling boundaries are not as well defined. Under Massachusetts General Law, campus police officers are appointed as “special state police officers,” a designation that authorizes them to have the same power as regular cops so long as they’re on their university’s property. That technically means they can’t make arrests if they witness a crime off campus. But many universities in Massachusetts have a workaround: In order to allow their officers to exercise their full powers outside the university’s property, their officers are also sworn in as deputy sheriffs of the county (or counties) that the university has property in.

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At Suffolk University, for example, the university’s cops are sworn deputy sheriffs in Suffolk County. As the school’s police department website explains, that “confers police powers throughout Suffolk County and allows our officers to act as valid law enforcement authorities in Suffolk County.” For context, Suffolk University has about 7,500 students. Suffolk County, on the other hand, has a population of over 800,000 people, all of whom are technically subject to the authority of the school’s police officers.

The case is much the same with other schools in Massachusetts. Northeastern University’s private police officers, for example, are also deputy sheriffs in Suffolk County, and MIT’s and Harvard’s officers are sworn in as deputy sheriffs in both Middlesex and Suffolk counties — with jurisdiction over a combined population of over 2 million people.

Harvard students were perplexed earlier this year when they found out that their university’s cops were policing a Black Lives Matter protest in Franklin Park, nearly six miles from the university’s main campus. A campus police spokesman explained to the Harvard Crimson that the officers were assisting local law enforcement in monitoring the protest — something they routinely do at large-scale events. What he didn’t mention was why Harvard police officers were able to assist local law enforcement in the first place. They were able to because the protest was happening within the jurisdiction where university officers are allowed to operate and exercise their full authority.

The fact that campus police are sanctioned officers of the law throughout a county does not mean they patrol the whole area; the main reason they are granted deputy sheriff powers is so they can act if they witness a crime when they’re traveling between campus facilities. The problem is that their patrolling boundaries aren’t clear to the public. None of the Boston-area schools I reached out to gave me rigid boundaries that their officers do not cross, though they told me that campus police tend to only patrol areas near campus. They also generally get local law enforcement to follow up on any incident that occurs off campus.

But whatever the customary limits on campus police, they still wield substantial policing powers off campus. It might serve the public well if schools established firm patrolling boundaries for themselves. That way, they would make clear to the residents of surrounding neighborhoods when and where they could be monitored by campus police.

Unlike public police agencies, private university police departments are not required to publicly disclose details of every interaction they have, including traffic stops. So it’s difficult to know whether, or how often, a campus police officer has stopped or searched a resident well beyond school grounds. (While most schools have abided by varying degrees of public disclosure requirements, many of which are self-imposed, some continue to resist calls to make their records public.)

Private campus police agencies are not immune to the racism and violence that plague public police forces across the country. A Harvard police officer, for example, was accused of calling a Black man the n-word when he arrested him last winter. In another arrest, that same officer pressed on a Black man’s neck to the point where the man said he couldn’t breathe.

As a result of their authority to patrol areas that extend beyond university property, campus police can also play a role in facilitating gentrification. One reason why gentrifying neighborhoods become inhospitable to their long-term residents is that newcomers — often affluent and white — criminalize the social norms of the neighborhood instead of assimilating. New residents tend to report behavior that was previously considered normal, like sidewalk barbecues or late night music, to law enforcement, which results in fines over ordinance violations and interactions with officers that lead to arrests. If a gentrifying neighborhood happens to have a university in it, then campus police are often called upon to establish new norms in the neighborhood.

This creates tension between a school and its surrounding residents — and people of color in particular. According to an analysis conducted by a professor at the University of Chicago, 73 percent of the university police’s traffic stops between 2015 and 2020 involved Black people; 59 percent of people residing in the agency’s jurisdiction are Black. CareNotCops, a student campaign that seeks to abolish the University of Chicago police, combed publicly available data and found that between 2018 and 2020, 96 percent of the department’s non-traffic stops were of Black people.

Some schools have taken it upon themselves to reform their private police agencies and curtail their power. Portland State University, for example, recently moved to disarm its police force. But that’s an isolated reform. Three-quarters of all colleges in the United States, public and private, employ sworn and armed officers, so meaningful changes are unlikely to happen on a case-by-case basis.

That’s why lawmakers should ask themselves whether private institutions should not only have their own police forces but have ones that operate by different rules. Many of the protocols that provide at least some restraints are merely voluntary and not mandated by law. By empowering campus police officers to exercise the power of the state, local governments are asking their citizens to put their trust in private institutions that do not serve them. That’s not a good model of accountability; it’s a recipe for tragedy.

This article was updated on Dec. 1 to clarify that the bar where a Black man was killed by Portland State University police is next to campus buildings.


Abdallah Fayyad can be reached at abdallah.fayyad@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @abdallah_fayyad.