When campus crime happens, should the university police be on the campus?
Sarah Ragsdale shivered as she walked along the large, grassy area at the south part of the University of Nevada, Reno campus better known as the Manzanita Bowl. As the sun goes down, the area becomes darker and the large trees and bushes create an almost ominous presence, and Ragsdale quickened her pace through what she believes is the most dangerous part of campus.
“I do think the campus is safe,” Ragsdale said. “But I don’t take classes at night.”
Ragsdale is a sophomore at UNR, and she organizes “Safety Walks” to show students dangerous areas on campus, such as blind-cornered crosswalks, overgrown bushes and dimly lit areas.
The last Safety Walk on Oct. 11 was part of a routine event to promote campus safety. It had a larger turnout than usual, in response to student concerns about a man described by the campus newspaper as the “thruster,” who was reported to have grabbed women on campus and performed lewd acts. The attacks took place over a period of weeks.
Henry James Wiley, 43, was detained on Nov. 8 by a woman he allegedly grabbed and UNR math lecturer Torrey Carroll and later booked for assault.
During the spate of attacks, there was a lot of talk on campus about the activities of university police officers in neighborhoods and streets off campus, with many students saying that problems in outlying neighborhoods are city police problems, not campus concerns.
Earlier attacks that police say were linked to Wiley occurred on Sept. 20 and Sept. 29.
Although Ragsdale said the university police did all they could in the case of the “thruster,” she is more concerned with their general presence on campus.
“They’re not spending enough time on campus,” Ragsdale said. “They’re spending too much time enforcing alcohol policy off campus.”
Ragsdale said that because University Police Services (UPS) now focuses less on the main campus, burnt-out lights that should be reported by police stay unlit all semester, and police are less available to escort students taking night classes. (According to a student government report, during the Oct. 11 Safety Walk, broken streetlights, stop signs hidden by overgrowth, and impeded disabled access were found.)
UPS consists of about 32 officers and staff, although only about 25 of them are on patrol. They patrol areas belonging to the university, including the main UNR campus, the Redfield campus, agriculture fields, and Stead and Wadsworth properties. University police chief Adam Garcia said jurisdiction in the greater area of Reno makes sense because UNR properties are so spread out. However, he also said that policing off campus doesn’t take away the importance placed on campus.
“Importance does not shift,” Garcia said. “We patrol hundreds of buildings on this campus even if there are no people.”
During his four years as chief, Garcia says he has focused on making the campus and its surrounding areas safe for students and others.
“What happens in the community around us affects us, and what happens on the university affects the community,” Garcia said.
According to Garcia, the most common crimes on campus are larceny and problems involving alcohol and drugs. Garcia said that during the “thruster” attacks, the university police did all they could, investigating the crimes and informing students about the situation and ways they could keep safe, such as by using the escort service.
“We did it before people had an opportunity to become alarmed,” Garcia said.
Garcia said that even with campus police patrolling surrounding neighborhoods, the campus is a safe place for students. He said that during his time as police chief, a “stranger rape” on campus has never been committed. (Most victims of rape have met their attackers.)
“I think they [students] are very safe,” Garcia said. “We have low levels of assault-type behavior.”
The overlapping authority between campus and city police is a relatively new development, dating back to 1991. Before that, university administrators and downtown police were able to keep the university police confined to campus. The Nevada Legislature regularly defeated measures to allow university officers off campus.
In 1975, a lobbyist representing the campus police—then called the University of Nevada Police Department (UNPD)—testified before a legislative committee that the Reno Police Department supported giving the university officers authority in surrounding neighborhoods. The committee later learned that it had been misled and killed a bill supported by UNPD.
In 1979, UNPD made it something of a labor/management issue, enlisting the lobbying assistance of the State of Nevada Employees Association. But Chancellor Donald Baepler and other administrators convinced the lawmakers to reject the expanded authority.
Finally, in 1991, the legislators approved expanded jurisdiction, in part because it solved political problems for university administrators faced with bad publicity over incidents involving off-campus fraternities.
Associate vice-president of student life Rita Laden agrees with what she calls the “community-policing methodology” of the campus police. Laden said that police patrolling surrounding neighborhoods have helped to lessen crime and protect students living in those areas.
“At night, you’re not going to find students on campus, you’re going to find them off campus,” Laden said.
“We can work with our own police department. It’s very helpful for us that our police deal with university related issues.”
But some university students and faculty members say problems like drinking at fraternities are not university-related problems, they’re city problems.
“If a student robs a 7-Eleven across the street from campus, that doesn’t make it a university issue,” said one student.
Charles Clement, Student Living Groups Safety Program director for the student residence halls, recalls the frustrations of being a university police officer who couldn’t intervene in dangerous situations off campus because of jurisdiction restraints.
“We would call and hope that someone would arrive, and we would just kind of watch,” Clement said.
He specifically remembers an incident involving a D.U.I. charge on Virginia Street that failed in court because of a jurisdiction issue.
“We felt we had a legitimate need for the change in jurisdiction,” Clement said.
“The majority of people who live there [areas near campus] are students,” Clement said. “If something happens, who better to respond, the University Police Department or the Reno Police Department?”
Rebecca Thomas, who lives a few hundred yards from a fraternity house, says the answer is the Reno Police Department.
“My feeling is, if there’s something going on that would require police response, quite frankly, it’s irrelevant to me which department responds as long as the issue is taken care of. That being said, as a parent, I would much rather see my children have to deal with the city police department if they’re making a disturbance on city property rather than university property. I don’t think it does children any good to coddle them and take them out of the loop of responsibility.”
Although UPS officers being off campus was a common UNR topic of conversation during the weeks of the “thruster” attacks, the issue drew no news coverage. Neither Reno television stations that covered the story nor the campus newspaper Sagebrush included the jurisdiction issue in their coverage.
One newspaper’s coverage did raise some hackles, though. The Pack Patriot didn’t cover the attacks but did trivialize them in commentary—a cartoon and a list of the “top ten defenses against the thruster.” That feature, though, was the closest any news coverage came to addressing jurisdiction—number two on the list was “Call campus police, just don’t expect them to show up.”