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Campus police in spotlight after U. of Cincinnati death

Michelle R. Smith
Associated Press
Court officers look on as former University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing, left, appears at Hamilton County Courthouse for his arraignment in the shooting death of motorist Samuel DuBose, Thursday, July 30, 2015, in Cincinnati. Tensing, who was indicted and fired from his job on Wednesday, shot and killed Dubose on July 19 after stopping him over a missing license plate. Tensing pleaded not guilty Thursday to charges of murder and involuntary manslaughter. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Providence, R.I. — When an Ohio prosecutor charged a campus police officer with murder in the death of a driver during a traffic stop, he offered a harsh judgment on University of Cincinnati police, saying the school should not be in the business of law enforcement at all.

That statement and the circumstances of the shooting near campus have raised questions about college police departments, which often possess powers that extend beyond their schools’ boundaries. More universities are adding officers and arming them, insisting they can better police students than municipal officers.

The July 19 shooting happened about a half-mile from campus when UC officer Ray Tensing pulled over Samuel DuBose for a missing front license plate. DuBose, who was not a student, refused to get out of the car, and Tensing shot the driver once in the head.

Tensing was fired and has pleaded not guilty. His lawyer has said he feared for his life.

Word of the shooting traveled swiftly through college campuses like the University of Rhode Island, which armed its campus police this year after a 2013 incident in which students in a lecture hall thought they heard someone claim to have a gun. The faculty union fought the move, and its executive director said a shooting like the one in Ohio is what they feared.

“I could very easily imagine someone getting pulled over, someone mouthing off and boom,” Frank Annunziato said. “It doesn’t surprise me, and it does sicken me. People here are talking about it. I can tell you that.”

In the 2011-2012 school year, more than 14,000 sworn police officers were working on campuses — a 10 percent increase in the number of full-time sworn personnel since the 2004-2005 school year, according to a survey by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics at four-year colleges with more than 2,500 students.

Seventy-five percent of campuses used armed officers, up from 68 percent, and more than 80 percent of sworn officers were allowed to patrol or arrest people off campus.

Just like city police officers, there have been high-profile cases of university police who used excessive force.

In 2011, a campus police officer at the University of California, Davis, became an Internet meme when he casually walked down a line of sitting protesters, covering them with copious amounts of pepper spray. He was fired.

Last year, the California State University system, while not admitting fault, agreed to pay $2.5 million to the family of a student killed during a struggle with San Bernardino campus police.

University police departments have also sometimes been accused of secrecy or even getting in the way of a municipal police investigation. Only a handful of states require private campus police to disclose records to the public.

Questions have also arisen about whether university police have legal authority off campus. In North Dakota, the state Supreme Court ruled last month that a North Dakota State University officer did not have the authority to arrest a woman for drunken driving off campus.

In Cincinnati, Ono ordered an independent review and said he expected the department would be monitored for several years. He also stood by the officers who remain on the force.

“This is one officer,” he said. “And there are lots of very good men and women that are part of our police department.”