University Police Work: Independent Or Unduly Influenced?

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An Ohio State University police cruiser, Wooster campus(Photo: OARDC)
An Ohio State University police cruiser, Wooster campus(Photo: OARDC)

Last week, longtime Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was fired for not reporting alleged sexual assaults to campus police. The case raises questions about where university administrative oversight ends and police work begins.

The allegations of sexual assault by a Penn State football assistant coach have raised many questions, the primary being, why weren’t police involved. Even though an indictment charges that some of the assaults occurred on campus, the Penn State police force did very little investigating because most of the incidents were never reported to the police department. However, the Penn State administrator who oversees the university’s campus police, senior vice president Gary Schultz, is charged with perjury and ‘failure to report.’ Ohio State’s police chief, Paul Denton, says if such incidents occurred at OSU, a witness or victim ought to have the presence of mind to notify the police.

“It would be my expectation that that person would think to notify, contact or report that to the university police division,” Denton says. “And not reporting through an administrator or someone else and think that that would substitute for reporting to a police agency to start an investigation.”

The beginnings of law enforcement at Ohio State began in 1889 when the board of trustees hired a night watchman for the fledgling campus. Today OSU has a department with 48 police officers including four investigators. Denton says they have the same training and skills as officers with other agencies such as county sheriffs’ deputies and the Columbus police. They also have the same authority and police powers.

“This is a very complex form of policing and those that don’t think we’re on par with our peers I think they just don’t quite understand our world,” Denton says.

Denton says Ohio State police officers rarely seek assistance from another agency because they have all the authority they need. Once an investigation is complete Denton says cases are often turned over directly to the county prosecutor.

“Our cases most frequently are filed under state code violation,” Denton says. “We would take those cases to the county prosecutor assuming that it happened here in Columbus, the crime, it would be referred to the Franklin County prosecutor’s office. Frequently we take cases directly to a grand jury for a direct indictment and present it to the grand jury. Other times we will make an immediate arrest and then carry out the prosecution that way.”

Until July 1st, Otterbein University only had security officers but no police force. Now 10 police officers patrol the campus. Otterbein police chief Larry Banaszak says the change came after several students were robbed at gunpoint and as violence on other college campuses escalated.

“You know Virginia Tech happened and as we began to research crime across campuses in the United States, it was significant; not only just shootings but assaults, physical assaults and that type of thing,” Banaszak says.

Banaszak says Otterbein administrators wanted to be proactive in protecting the university community.

At that time when we were a security department the Westerville Police Department would respond to any crimes in progress,” Banaszak says. “But their response time was not as great as our security officers that were actually on campus because Westerville didn’t patrol campus. So when it comes to shootings; when it comes to assaults and sexual assaults and things like that, seconds matter.

But the fact remains that university police officers work for the university; not elected officials. The president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators does not believe university police officers would hide crimes that would reflect badly on their school. Paul Verrecchia says there is no inherent conflict of interest.

“That doesn’t happen just at colleges and universities; sometimes you get elected officials who try to withhold information,” Verrecchia says. “So I mean it just, it happens in the real world. I’m trying to figure out how to diplomatically say this without making it sound like every mayor and every governor tries to suppress information. I’m just saying that there are people out there who may try to do it but in general I don’t find that to be the case.”

OSU police chief Paul Denton agrees. Like at Penn State, his boss is part of the university’s administration.

“I do report to an assistant vice president who is the director of public safety,” Denton says. “He is my boss and certainly my superior and I am accountable to him in many ways. But in terms of police function, I am the chief of police and do have autonomy to run this agency and organization as any police chief would. No we don’t need approval to investigate or carry out. As long as something is brought to our attention we do our job and do our duty as we are sworn to do.”

Denton says he has never been asked to withhold information about a case because it might damage or tarnish the image of the university.

“No sir, I never have,” Denton says.