Unlike other major universities in the state, the University of Southern California does not have a full-service police department – a scenario that seems hardly ideal for a university located in one of the worst crime sectors of Los Angeles.
While Department of Public Safety Chief Carey Drayton maintains that the hybrid system of academy-trained police officers and security guards in place at USC can keep the campus and its surrounding areas safe, he acknowledges it has its handicaps.
“Would I like to see all police officers here? Yes because that then makes the job a little bit easier for me but is it unworkable in the situation we’re in now? It’s not,” he said in October 2008.
Crime figures for fall 2008 show that Part 1 crimes, which include all violent and property crimes, occur at a rate of 341.7 per 10,000 persons in the Southwest sector of Los Angeles. Meanwhile, in UCLA’s West sector the rate drops to 152.7, yet the university operates a full-service police department, which patrols not only its campus but the surrounding community as well, and so do other universities of similar size and pedigree up and down California, and in states such as Texas, Michigan, and Massachusetts.
And the reason USC does not lies in the difference between public and private institutions of higher education in the California Penal Code.
“It has nothing to do with the university’s desires, it has to do with state legislatures, state laws, and local and county police departments,” said Drayton.
The state of Texas, for example, allows private universities to create independent police departments and hire licensed police officers vested with all the powers, privileges, and immunities of the law under Chapter E, Subchapter 51, Sec. 51.212 of its education code.
But California law is different. Schools in the University of California system, such as UCLA and UC Berkeley, are authorized to create independent police agencies and grant them full authority and jurisdiction throughout the state under Sec. 830.2 of the state penal code, but no such provision exists for private universities.
LAPD Not A Willing Partner
Several times over the last two decades, the restrictive legislation has led USC to attempt to join forces with the Los Angeles Police Department in a hybrid system or to deputize the department’s officers to serve the USC community, but negotiations stalled.
“Partnerships, accountability, and responsibility are always quite complex once you start working on them,” said Martha Harris, Senior Vice President for Student Affairs at USC.
“USC has tried many times in the past, but we are what we are,” said Drayton.
If the LAPD were to create a new subdivision for the 35,000-student campus, finances and liability would be major concerns, said Officer Jason Lee, a spokesman for the police department.
“Money is the fist issue,” he said. “People who are properly trained should be paid accordingly. We would also have to pay for more patrol cars and computers.”
“And the LAPD always gets sued for excessive force, and we would need a lot of money to fight those charges.”
Full Powers of Arrest, Investigation and Prosecution
The difference between a full-service police department and a department of public safety like USC’s is most significant in the authority vested upon officers.
As an independent police agency, the UCLA Police Department has complete authority of arrest, investigation, and prosecution. It handles all crime in its area of jurisdiction except for homicide investigations and hostage or bomb situations that require SWAT teams.
“We’re not dependent on the LAPD to decide whether or not our crime is one that needs their attention,” said UCLA Chief of Police Karl Ross.
“They’re so busy, so understaffed with so many things going on, that the priorities of the university may not be what they’re interested in,” he said.
Furthermore, simply looking the part of a police officer is also a critical difference.
“The first level of force in trying to control a situation is your physical presence and appearance. We refer to it in the business as command presence,” he said.
“I think the ability to not only do the visibility with patrol but also the prosecution and criminal investigation of our own crimes really is quite beneficial to our community,” he concluded.
Unprecedented Authority Put to the Test
DPS officers still don’t have the authority of licensed peace officers, but their powers have expanded in recent months due to a new Memorandum of Understanding with the LAPD.
Before October 2008, under the old MOU, DPS officers had limited arrest and investigation authority. The department could only carry investigations and arrests to a point before turning them over to the city police.
“In the past we had to occupy both LAPD and our officers,” said Drayton. “Now we have the ability to take people straight to jail.”
“This is more efficient for both us and the LAPD,” said Assistant Chief John Thomas.
“The bad guys knew we couldn’t arrest them. LAPD would say ‘hey, we’re too busy to arrest that misdemeanor right now,’ and we’d have to let them go,” he said.
Lawyers on both sides pored through the agreement to make sure both city and university resources were allocated effectively.
But while the new MOU gives the DPS unprecedented powers for a security agency of its kind, the university community has been rocked by a series of high-profile crimes in recent months.
In September 2008, Bryan Richard Frost, a 23-year-old graduate student, died after sustaining a stab wound in an altercation with an area resident.
Two months later, track star Bryshon Nellum, 19, was shot three times in the legs as he walked out of a restaurant.
On March 12 of this year, a car chase involving the LAPD ended with the shooting death of a suspect at Budlong and Adams boulevards, and a few days later freshman Adrianna Bachan was killed in a hit-and-run accident as she crossed Jefferson Boulevard.
Two rapes were also reported in the fall of 2008.
The incidents have caused the department to readjust its crime-prevention strategies.
The university’s free vehicle escort service, Campus Cruiser, for example, now has a mandate to keep its arrival and service times to under 15 minutes.
“We feel that having Campus Cruiser wait times drop makes people feel like it’s a viable thing to use,” said Drayton.
“If they’re in a vehicle, they’re not on the street and that improves the perception of safety.”
The department has also increased the force by 14 officers since last fall and has recently allocated 10 officers to patrol the graduate student housing area on T3s – three-wheeled segways.
Also as part of the new MOU, the LAPD is dedicating more patrol units exclusively to the USC area.
While recent crime in the area has received extensive media attention, overall violent crime has decreased by 46 percent over the last two years, according to figures released by DPS.
Also, so far this year, robbery is down 68 percent from 2008.
“What we’re dealing with now is the fear and perception of crime,” said Thomas.
“You’re not seeing this decrease anywhere else in South Los Angeles. Nowhere in South LA is it safer than in the area around USC,” he said.
“Most places can’t say that especially in this economy.”
“We’re not just responding to crime. We’re tracking it. We meet every week and discuss patterns and individuals who commit crimes and go after them.”
Still, Drayton believes his department is handicapped by one limitation – whose removal he believes would go a long way in preventing accidents like March’s hit-and-run.
“It’s our inability to stop cars and give traffic citations,” he said.
“If we had the authority to do that, people wouldn’t feel free to drive through here with impunity.”
Numbers Draw Skepticism, Surprise
Surprisingly, according to PAC 10 crime statistics, between 2005 and 2007, USC had lower overall crime rates than UCLA, UC Berkeley, and Stanford University – all located in less crime-riddled communities than USC.
In 2007, for example, USC had an overall crime index of 5.0 per 1,000 students, while UCLA, Berkeley, and Stanford had rates of 7.7, 7.0, and 11.9 respectively.
Of the three, only Stanford does not have its own police department.
Chief Ross of UCLA called the numbers into question.
“Statistics are what statistics are and you can basically make them say whatever you want them to,” he said.
Drayton was surprised upon seeing the figures, unable to explain the unexpected reversal in the schools’ crime indices except by giving credit to his officers.
While acquiring a full-fledged police department at USC may be years away, the department continues to push the limits of its authority and work with law enforcement agencies and community organizations to enhance student safety.
“What we have can be made to work. In a community like ours, it’s important for us to have a strong presence to demonstrate that we care,” he said.