Campus police officers have existed at American colleges and universities for over 120 years.1,2 Despite recent calls to defund or abolish campus police, governments and institutions continue to financially support, expand, and increase policing on campus.3 Few researchers have analyzed the legal authority of university police or provided a critical lens to university police statutes. This study updates and builds upon two previous studies that analyze the legal authority of university police.4,5 It is the third empirical study in fifty years to provide a comprehensive overview of the statutory authority of campus police officers and provides a critical perspective to the authority of university police.
What legal authority do university police at public colleges and universities have in each state, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and Guam?
- Statutes: Forty-seven (94%) states and the District of Columbia have a university police statute relating to public colleges or universities. Florida is the only state that legally mandates universities establish university police.
- Governing Bodies: Thirty-five (74.4%) states with a university police statute delegate authority to the Governing Board of public institutions of higher education. Seven (14.8%) states delegate authority to the President or Chief Executive Officer. Three (6.3%) states delegate authority to the Institution or University.
- Police Power: Every state with a university police statute grants campus police officers with police powers, conferring upon them the authority and privileges of being a law enforcement officer. In addition to state laws, eight (17%) states grant campus police officers the authority to enforce university rules and regulations.
- Jurisdiction: Twenty-two (46.8%) states with a university police statute authorize campus police officers to exercise their police powers beyond the physical boundaries of the college or university. Fourteen (29.7%) states authorize officers to exercise their police powers within the physical boundaries of the college or university campus and provide exceptions for officers to exercise their police powers off campus. Eight (17%) states and the District of Columbia authorize campus police officers to exercise their police powers within the physical boundaries of the college or university campus.
- Weapons: Twelve (25.5%) states with a university police statute and the District of Columbia expressly grant campus police officers the authority to carry or use weapons. Ten (21.2%) states and the District of Columbia expressly grant campus police officers the authority to carry firearms.
The Expansion of Legal Authority for University Police
State legislatures have provided campus police officers with notable expansions in their legal authority, granting enforcement powers and responsibilities beyond traditional campus boundaries. The expansion of legal authority is particularly concerning in light of the nationwide calls to address issues of race and policing and the potential for lack of transparency and accountability, as university police departments often operate with a degree of autonomy that hinders oversight from governing bodies that appoint them.
This study uses qualitative methods to analyze the characteristics of university police statutes gathered from legal search engines and publicly available websites. Active university police statutes as of July 1, 2022, and those applicable to public institutions of higher education were included in the data.
Forty-seven states and the District of Columbia have a state law governing campus police. Nearly 90% of states with a university police statute permit governing bodies with the lowest possible threshold to employ campus police officers. This is important because the statutory language could be interpreted to mean institutions do not appoint any campus police officers, either because they choose not to or because they believe campus police officers are not necessary. However, institutions have built and sustained multi-million-dollar police departments, imbuing their campuses with law enforcement practices reflective of a carceral political state that places a hyper-reliance on police.
Every state with university police statutes grants campus police officers with police powers. Conferring campus police officers with the authority of law enforcement officers cements the privileges associated with law enforcement, such as qualified immunity, arrest powers, and access to state and local financial resources. Access to qualified immunity and resources often shields police officers from accountability measures. This is concerning due to the racialized patterns and practices of violence perpetrated by university police.6,7
Several states grant campus police officers the ability to also enforce university rules and regulations. This raises questions about the purpose of university police. If campus police officers at public institutions serve the public interest by enforcing public law, their ability to simultaneously enforce university rules and regulations expands their enforcement authority to serve private, institutional interests. University police that enforce laws and university policies serve two entities by enforcing public and private matters, effectively exposing students to dual paradigms of surveillance and institutional control.
Nearly half of the states with a university police statute authorize campus police officers to exercise their powers off-campus. For many, this includes public roads adjacent to the university, and provide no delineation on where campuses like the University of Chicago start or stop within city limits. The expansion of university police jurisdiction, particularly on campuses in metropolitan areas, raises significant concerns related to racial discrimination, over-policing, resource allocation, community encroachment, and economic disparities. Communities that already face high levels of policing are subject to additional police presence and further surveillance and harassment.
Expanding the jurisdiction of university police also requires institutions to invest resources in off-campus patrolling. This investment diverts already scarce campus resources away from the needs of campus community members, such as mental health counseling, affordable housing, and food security.
The statutes authorizing university police to carry weapons raise concerns about the ways universities conceptualize safety. Student demands to disarm law enforcement on campuses underscores the disconnect between the perceived role of campus police officers and desires of the student body for a safer and more inclusive educational environment. For many, an armed police force on campus can contribute to an atmosphere of fear and intimidation, countering the missions of academic institutions.
Current attention on policing in America, including on college and university campuses, has thrust the legal authority of university police to a critical subject of inquiry. The expansion of legal authority raises questions about the potential for increased interactions between university police and the broader community, particularly for racially marginalized populations. As reform, defund, and student abolition movements continue to permeate the national discussion, it becomes imperative to include the evolving legal authority of university police in critical analyses.
1. Bordner, D. C. & Petersen, D. M. (1983). Campus policing: The nature of university police work. University Press of America.
2. Charles C. Thomas Publisher, Ltd. Miller, V. & Russell-Brown, K. (2023). Policing the college campus: History, race, and law. Washington & Lee Journal of Civil Rights and Social Justice, 29(3), 59-128.
3. Fisher, B. S. & Sloan, J. S. (2022). Campus crime: Legal, social, and policy perspectives.
4. Gelber, S. (1972). The role of campus security in the college setting. U.S. Department of Justice. https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/Digitization/8966NCJRS.pdf
5. Bromley, M. (1996). Policing our campuses: A national review of statutes. American Journal of Police, (15)3, 1-22. https://doi.org/10.1108/07358549610129604
6. Dizon, J. P. M. (2023). Protecting the university, policing race: A case study of campus policing. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 16(4) 410-424. https://doi.org/10.1037/dhe0000350
7. Miller, V. (2024). A critical legal analysis of campus police authority. In Suriel, Y., Watkins, G., Dizon, J. P. M., Sloan, J. J. (Eds.) Cops on Campus: Rethinking safety and confronting police violence (pp. 17-32). University of Washington Press.
Meet the Researcher
Vanessa Miller is an Assistant Professor of Education Law in the School of Education at Indiana University. She is an interdisciplinary scholar whose work focuses on race and the law, school and university police, school crime and safety, prison education, and the role of the courts in education law and policy. Dr. Miller holds Affiliate Status at the Center for Research on Race and Ethnicity in Society and the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.
This brief is drawn from her forthcoming publication in the Buffalo Law Review, “A National Survey and Critical Analysis of University Police Statutes.”