The topic of defunding the police has been met with national intrigue the past few months, both countered with resistance in Florida and supported with increased awareness and discussion among students of the Campus Police Department (CPD) and their roles locally on campus. Incoming NCSA President and Catalyst staff member Sofia Lombardi’s goal to fight for police reform, concerns about enforcing mask regulations, the recent string of bike thefts and an allegation on the forum that police were holding a banquet on campus have all left students with pressing questions and concerns. Chief of Campus Police, Michael Kessie, hopes to offer clarification on enforcement of COVID-19 safety regulations and the future of police bikes, golf carts and body cameras at New College.
Internally, shifts in CPD duties on campus first began following the campus shutdown in March in what Kessie describes as a transition from, “a people function to a property function.” Their jobs at this time consisted of monitoring New College buildings and property as means of serving the remaining students and faculty left on campus.
Campus police officers maintained their regular schedule until June unless an officer suspected that they had contracted COVID-19 and were awaiting testing. Kessie stressed the importance of police presence during this uncertain time to keep unauthorized people off campus.
“Other campus departments [are] equally important, but if somebody doesn’t show up to IT or somebody doesn’t show up to custodial, you might get a room that gets cleaned a day later or your IT might not work,” Kessie said. “Which I know is important, but we have got to be here. We have got to have our dispatch.”
Following the reopening of campus, Kessie says that safety regulations have not impacted their jobs very much, outside of having their building and vehicles cleaned. He says that a few hypothetical exceptions could leave officers without masks at certain times.
“For example, if you pull a vehicle over and the person maybe jumps out of the car right away, there may not be time to get a mask on,” Kessie said. “But overall, we’re pretty much compliant with everything, like anybody else.”
With these safety regulations in mind, Kessie addresses the accusations made on the forum that the CPD were going to hold a banquet in Sudakoff, exceeding the number of people that can safely gather on campus. Kessie claimed that this was the first time he had heard of any such event.
“If somebody had a banquet and I wasn’t invited, I’d be very upset,” Kessie said. “I don’t know where that came from. We were planning on having a training program but it kind of fell apart because of COVID.”
Even before conversation surrounding the police gained its momentum through national media attention, students and the NCSA have been concerned about engaging conversation with and reducing police presence on campus. Third year and former police liaison Jessica “Jess” Franks knows firsthand how difficult rallying for change can be, especially when she first started as police liaison in her second term.
“I came in with a lot of big ideas and students were coming to me with a lot of concerns and I was like, ‘Yes, this is great. Let’s make something happen,’” Franks said. “And then I would have my monthly meetings with the police and other student government positions, and I felt like it was really hard to get anything to change.”
Finding ways to decrease police presence by handing off certain jobs to students or campus services had been one of Franks’ primary goals. In years past, Franks wanted to decrease police presence at walls and reemploy wall monitors and other forms of nightly student patrol. But this year, students are more concerned with what role the CPD is playing in the enforcement of safety regulations, especially considering Sarasota locals who visit campus without masks.
Prior to reopening, Kessie said he had been on weekly calls with other State University System (SUS) police chiefs from Florida State University (FSU), University of Central Florida (UCF) and Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) with a common recurring theme: police should not be enforcing non-police issues.
Forcing students and faculty to wear masks is ultimately out of police hands. According to Kessie, if a student in a classroom setting refuses to wear a mask, there is a protocol that the faculty member can follow to deal with the situation, and if a student in a dorm room refuses then it is dealt with by Student Affairs. If a staff member refuses to wear a mask, then it falls under the jurisdiction of Human Resources (HR). The only situation where police would be involved with enforcing safety regulations would be if a student or staff member called the police due to a visitor refusing to wear a mask after being confronted.
“If it’s a visitor who just refuses, then that’s a different situation,” Kessie said. “That’s not acceptable for our community standards. We just didn’t want [enforcing safety regulations] to become another job that nobody wants to do that the police get to do that then [makes us] more adversarial with our community.”
Kessie compares this situation to people resorting to calling the police to make noise complaints, even though they are not criminal offenses. While the CPD was once expected to be the first responders to noise complaints at New College many years ago, now Student Affairs can handle them and the police do not need to be involved. This and the continually expanding Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and discussion of police brutality following the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd means that the CPD must be extra aware of the image they project to students.
“We’ll handle our police stuff, but it’s just not good for our reputation to be involved in everything,” Kessie said. “We’re just trying to avoid any unnecessary interactions right now at a time where we need to be concerned about our appearance.”
While the CPD remains more hands-off when it comes to enforcing safety regulations, something they can be contacted for and have already had much experience with this semester are cases of theft. A recent string of bike thefts affecting primarily Z Residence Hall culminated in Sergeant Kelley Masten and Officer Alex Halley catching two people in the act, arresting one and releasing the other pending investigation.
Officer Michael Clary was also able to recover two bikes from a third individual—who fled the scene—while he was patrolling the area and is working to return them. Since then, reports of bike thefts seem to have slowed to a halt.
The remaining question is what sort of developments students can expect from the CPD going forward. One change that is currently underway is the transition from police using cars while on duty to using bikes and golf carts, something that the CPD and the NCSA were first negotiating while Franks was a police liaison.
“Last year, between September and [winter] break, we were meeting with the student government every week,” Kessie said. “And one of the things that came up was, ‘Hey, we would like to see officers more out in the community on bikes and golf carts as opposed to in a car.’ And we said yes, we do too.”
New College currently has four officers that are trained to use bikes but had only three bikes last year, which were donated by the University of South Florida (USF) police department. This year the CPD was able to buy five new bikes with their performance funding money and plan to have one more officer receive training to use a bike on duty. The CPD have also recently revamped two of their three golf carts to include a first aid kit and an automated external defibrillator (AED). Kessie is looking to donate the old bikes to the campus Bike Shoppe and the third golf cart to a student organization. Another new golf cart will be ordered in early 2021.
“I think the bikes humanize the officer,” Kessie said. “Having them on a golf cart puts them in a different position than a car and I think that a lot of departments are trying to do those things, so I’m happy that we get the funding for that.”
Franks says that initial concerns about moving officers to bikes and golf carts were that the CPD’s protocol would require a certain number of officers to be present in vehicles before any additional officers on bikes could be considered, potentially increasing overall police presence. Even so, Franks says that getting police out of cars and on golf carts should serve to weaken the disconnect or anxiety that students can feel towards officers.
“It’s a lot less intimidating to see someone’s face in a golf cart as opposed to [through] a dark [vehicle] window where you can’t see them,” Franks said.
Franks says that transitioning from cars to bikes and golf carts should also reduce frustrations that students have had about police driving on the grass on campus spaces like Z Green.
Body cameras have also come up several times in the past and more recently, notably during the NCSA presidential debate and in the statement released by the Faculty of Color and Underrepresented Groups (FOCUG). The road to equipping officers with body cameras, however, is much longer and more difficult than outfitting them with bikes and golf carts, as body cameras have been a topic of discussion since before Franks was a police liaison.
“Initially, we had also talked about body cameras,” Franks said. “But the more I learned, the more I realized that it’s just more money into something that maybe we should not be putting more money into.”
FOCUG has called for the CPD to be provided with non-lethal tools including body cameras as well as tasers, and Kessie said he had an interview with FOCUG member Professor Diego Villada on this issue.
“Prior to any of what happened this year, we have been asking for body cams,” Kessie said. “I am very, very supportive [of it]. I don’t think I’ll see it in my career, but I think all police officers will eventually have them across the country. There may be some exceptions, but I think this is a positive thing for the police.”
Currently, the biggest issues with body cameras is that they are expensive and create several additional problems that administration would need to solve before they could be properly utilized. Video storage, for example, takes up more space in comparison to photo or audio and would require assistance from the IT department. IT would also need to be involved in order to redact footage if it contains personal or sensitive student information—such as a social security number or details regarding a stalking case. Campus police also offer police reports to students for ten cents a page but deciding the cost and distribution of footage from body cameras could also take some time to sort out. As of now, it’s uncertain when New College police will start using body cameras.
“It’s definitely in the six-figure area, and right now we’re going into a budget year,” Kessie said. “Next year, 2021 or 2022, it’s uncertain at best with COVID in the state of Florida. So, is that [getting body cameras] the best thing we should be doing right now? I know why we should have it. I think the community would want it, but there’s a pretty heavy cost for it.”
As discussions of police reform and funding continue both nationally and on campus, Kessie encourages students to reach out and ask questions whenever they have problems or concerns and to give the campus police the chance to explain or clarify.
“I just want them [students] to know that just because it’s happening out there, and there are a lot of bad things, but not everything that’s happening out there is happening here,” Kessie said. “We want that open communication and dialogue. We’re part of the community just like you and everybody else.”
Franks also wants students to know that New College is not alone in their frustrations with the police as a system, and that change can be made as long as students continue to fight for it.
“In order to be the campus and the culture that we strive to be, we need to follow the rest of the country and realize that maybe police presence is not what we thought it was,” Franks said.