The campus police department has evolved and changed with New College over the years. While tensions between students and police have fluctuated throughout the years, the trend downwards of the average age of new officers and a national shift in the attitude towards police has partially contributed to heightened strain between students and police. Understanding the history of the department is crucial to comprehending the state of the department today.
New College was founded as a private institution in 1964. Until the merger with the University of South Florida in 1975, unarmed security officers from a local Sarasota firm patrolled the area. However, after a tragic incident in 1973, the security force was bolstered.
“When I started, in 1971, there were security guards, whose primary concern was protecting students, sometimes from the Sarasota Police,” alum Steve Jacobson said. “That changed in 1973 when one of the security guards was killed with his own gun by a guy who was in the process of assaulting a student in her dorm room in E-dorm.”
After the incident, a new head of security was hired and some students were hired as security officers. Police also sporadically employed students at other points throughout the college’s history: other alums mentioned police hiring students on the job in the 1980s and mid-2000s.
After New College became a part of USF in 1975, new standards were put in place. The tumultuous environment on college campuses throughout the country in the 1960s, from protests in favor of the civil rights movement to activism against the Vietnam War, prompted many state legislatures to raise the standards for campus security. For example, Florida passed a law in 1970 that mandated that public universities hire officers that had gone through the same training as other law enforcement officers.
Although the law enforcement at New College during that time may have been more lax than at other universities, anecdotal evidence from that time suggests otherwise. The institution was changing and adapting to becoming a public university under the watchful eye of USF, so resentment against all forms of new authority abounded.
“Some claim that the presence of armed police and the bureaucratic USF administration’s administrative structure are severely damaging the anarchic, innovative spirit that prevailed when New College was a private institution. This is the hottest issue on campus,” according to a 1978 issue of the Yale Daily News cited in a 2017 Catalyst article.
Throughout much of the campus police department’s history, recently retired cops from New York and other areas “up north” were the predominating labor pool. However, the precedent for hiring retired police officers from was long lasting for much of New College’s history. Alum William Rosenburg (‘73) recalled that their laid-back attitude contributed to a relaxed atmosphere around campus.
“A huge change for the better occurred in the late 1970s when Bill Kelly was hired by Walt Hooper as an officer,” Rosenburg, who worked as a dispatcher with the campus police department, said. Kelly was a retired NYPD officer who “had nothing left to prove, and he had a low-key, laid back approach to his job. He brought in a number of his retired NYPD officers as colleagues. They shared his approach, and the new force was really in tune with a sane approach to policing the campus…This group was really like a group of protective grandfathers to us rather than ‘cops’. They looked out for us, protected us, and created a good atmosphere on campus.”
However, Chief of Campus Police Michael Kessie said that fewer retirees have been applying in recent years, and the makeup of the force has shifted to younger officers fresh out of the police academy. Kessie credited the declining interest among retired NYPD cops—notably within the past five or six years—because they might be able to find other, better-paying jobs at other agencies or be eligible for pension.
“We have a lot of younger officers now,” Kessie said. “It changes things up around here a little bit, which is good, it’s always good to have some change. But the downside is that experience and knowledge you don’t have.”
In addition, the older cops were able to cultivate a more sociable relationship with students, but Kessie does not see as many casual interactions between students and the newer, younger officers.
Kessie also noted that nationwide, police departments are struggling to find qualified applicants because less people are interested in becoming police officers today.
“We currently find ourselves in a situation across the country where qualified candidates are becoming more difficult to find,” Kessie said. “One of the reasons is who’s going to want to do this job with the increased scrutiny and the general feeling toward the police, so we’re having a really tough time as other departments are at finding qualified candidates.”
Although the average age of the police force has changed over time, the percentage of New College’s budget going towards policing has remained fairly consistent since the first year that this data was available, the 2003-2004 school year. The allocations for police as a proportion of the Education and General fund allocated from the legislature have hovered around three percent every year.
Kessie also noted that the field of policing has become more professionalized and that they could no longer take a laissez-faire approach.
“There were just some things going on that I was surprised to see and it was more of a ‘let’s not just say we didn’t’—very little documentation—and you just can’t get along with that now in the current place we find ourselves,” Kessie said, reflecting on when he first came to work at New College in 2002. “As time went on, things had to change and become more in line with what other departments were doing.”
Heather Oliver Dughi, who attended New College in the mid-1990s, recalled how the police adopted a laid-back approach to policing.
“I witnessed the cops handling impossible situations with tact and humor,” Dughi said. “They never wanted to arrest anyone. They’d walk into a bathroom where students were cutting sheets of acid and loudly announce that they were walking out and coming back in again.”
Ben Brown, who was the NCSA president during the 2008 calendar year, noticed that shift in professionalization over the course of his time at New College.
“I think our time was interesting because we really were able to experience the older, laissez-faire environment,” Brown said. “Toward the end there was increased interference with students’ activities.”
This article is the first in a two-part series about police on campus. Next week’s article will examine the present and future of the Campus Police Department and the recent efforts of an ad-hoc committee to reevaluate the role of police at New College.