Determining the Best Fit for University Policing 

By Robert A. Johnson, M.S., M.P.A. 
Surveillance in the campus policing environment.

When police officers transition from large law enforcement agencies to small university police departments, they may not think about the many significant changes that accompany this move. After all, these lateral officers already have experienced different policing styles, investigated crimes, and maintained relationships with the community.

However, this same prior experience may cause difficulties when lateral hires must assimilate to a new policing environment. For instance, firearms instructors often say that they can more easily instruct an inexperienced trainee because they have had little opportunity to develop bad habits. Similarly, unique challenges arise when experienced officers from large agencies must fit into a small department.

For experienced recruits, the university policing model may seem counterintuitive at first glance, especially because the policing philosophies and services differ so greatly from other agencies. Recruiters and trainers must help candidates learn the unique traits of their new position and teach them to embrace new strategies and philosophies that may conflict with learned experiences. If university police departments do not hire well-suited candidates, provide proper orientation and training, and continue officers’ professional development, they risk low retention rates and poor morale among their personnel.

Understanding the University Environment

Although large agencies and small departments exhibit many similarities in their organizational structures, certain fundamental differences exist, and university police departments need to prepare their lateral hires for what to expect. Most important, recruits must remember that many campus police departments’ policies depend on the incentives of the university’s leadership. Officers must appreciate the balance between the school, students, and faculty members who act as their stakeholders. The university wants to establish a level of campus security that will allow it to maximize student enrollment and employ the most competent faculty—the two key components of a university’s success—without overpolicing the community.

As such, campus police departments hesitate to employ certain practices common in other law enforcement agencies. For instance, aggressive traffic enforcement programs increase department visibility, but may not align with the goals of the university, and an increase in traffic stops and written citations may produce more complaints than praise. To this end, experienced recruits must fully understand the logic behind campus law enforcement and take a more moderate approach to keeping the peace.

Understanding these common scenarios requires flexibility and discretion from the university officers who handle these incidents. For instance, in a typical precinct, arresting a perpetrator may be the traditional knee-jerk response to resolve a conflict quickly, but in a campus setting, a more moderate approach that simply removes the suspect from university property may be the correct decision. Because of these unique requirements of campus police departments, an effective university police officer exhibits different skills and characteristics than traditional law enforcement professionals. Usually, a university police officer is a sworn, state-certified officer who works in an organization with a distinct organizational philosophy, procedural style, and “officer brand.” Experienced law enforcement professionals must understand the new roles they take on; university police officers act as a unique blend of law enforcer, crime prevention expert, security specialist, community organizer, public relations specialist, and safety facilitator.

Mr. Johnson, a retired captain with the Anne Arundel County, Maryland, Police Department, currently serves as a policy analyst with the University of Maryland, Baltimore Police Force.
Mr. Johnson retired as a captain with the Anne Arundel County, Maryland, Police Department and currently serves as a civilian policy analyst for the University of Maryland, Baltimore, Police Force.

None of these duties diminish the gravity of university crime suppression or the importance of the campus police officer. On campus, even relatively minor crimes can draw unwanted media attention to the university, especially when the victim is a student or faculty member. Similarly, a university can anticipate some scrutiny after an on-campus arrest, use of force, or weapons-related incident. Therefore, an effective police department contributes to both the safety and public image of the university.

The stark differences between traditional and campus law enforcement likely will cause some anxiety for experienced police officers. When unprepared for these significant changes to their work environment and job requirements, lateral police officers can quickly become disenchanted with their new role. Experienced recruits who do not understand the rationale behind a university police department’s methods may view them as too restrictive in procedural guideline; too closely supervised; too sedentary; and too focused on fixed posts, courtesy escorts, and crime prevention initiatives.

Some officers will adapt easily to the new philosophy and change their habits, while others will resist. Not all seasoned officers reject the, at times, sedentary nature of the campus community; in fact, many lateral hires desire this change because they are approaching retirement age, feeling disenchanted with their current agency, or simply seeking what may be slower-paced work. But, if recruits from divergent police agencies demonstrate destructive behaviors and a poor attitude as a result of their dissatisfaction, then too many of these lateral officers can damage an organization’s culture, morale, and retention rates. In such a small policing community, the whole department’s effectiveness can suffer as a result.

Assessing the Best Fit

Police administrators should thoroughly assess candidates for their ability to fit into the campus environment. Too often, recruiters hire officers with impressive resumes, but fail to screen them for their attitudes regarding a less dynamic atmosphere. The better the candidate understands the philosophy of university policing and displays a willingness to acclimate to it, the better the chance for individual and organizational success.

Of course, there are logical motivations for university police administrators to hire law enforcement professionals from large agencies. Experienced officers provide an infusion of new ideas, require less technical training, and reduce hiring costs. However, agencies should look beyond financial benefits to assess the best fit of an officer. Because campus policies and procedures differ so greatly from those in other law enforcement agencies, a lateral officer must be prepared for this new philosophy and the sometimes sedentary work that accompanies it.

A police officer assists a campus student with directions.

Despite the financial burden, a combination of lateral officers and new academy graduates may best serve the agency and the community. The right balance between the two helps preserve and protect organizational culture, maintain a level of agency experience, and properly prepare personnel for supervisory positions.

Often, however, departments struggle to find young candidates who want to begin their career as a campus police officer. Typically, young recruits prefer the fast pace and excitement of a large agency, and campus policing may not provide the sort of crime-fighting experiences that they desire. Therefore, if administrators cannot hire new candidates, then they must find well-suited lateral hires and help them transition smoothly into the university environment.

Improving Retention

Assuming a department selects appropriate candidates, administrators must take the steps necessary to help these recruits not only assimilate to their new environment but also remain with the agency for a significant period of time. By keeping employees engaged and satisfied with their work, the department likely will retain employees for a period of time sufficient to recoup the investment in their training. To accomplish this, the agency must provide opportunities for learning and development, emphasize leadership and promotion, and establish a salary progression that motivates employees throughout their careers.

Also, administrators should learn about the factors that drive experienced law enforcement officers to seek employment with smaller departments. In 2004, a research study reported several common traits of lateral hires. Most had left larger agencies after about three years of service, usually because of insufficient promotional opportunities, lack of salary increases, and budgetary restrictions.1 Also, the study found that more than 8 out of 10 new hires in small police departments were experienced officers from other agencies. Although the study did not specifically address campus law enforcement, anecdotal information suggests that these patterns ring true in university police departments as well.

Small departments can use this research to learn what administrative pitfalls to avoid in their organizational structures. This will increase satisfaction among their lateral hires and, thus, improve retention. For example, because many officers leave large agencies due to insufficient salary progression, small departments may improve retention if they increase officers’ salaries after three years on the job rather than offer high starting salaries. This restructured pay scale accounts for job experience, prevents discontent after several years in the agency, and may be the most important tactic to retain the best officers.


Traditional law enforcement models stress active crime suppression through stopping, interviewing, interrogating, and arresting perpetrators.

Police officers in large agencies carry out these duties in a fast-paced, dynamic environment. Often, they enjoy the freedom to develop ongoing cases, make traffic stops, and handle calls for service on their own schedule and without close supervision or control.

However, personnel who leave large agencies to work in a university police department must accept that their duties will change. They must understand certain realities of their work (e.g., a sedentary jurisdiction) and embrace new job responsibilities (e.g., fixed posts and crime prevention campaigns). Inevitably, university policing strategies limit officers’ control over their daily routine, and this may require lateral hires to reevaluate their learned behaviors and attitudes.

A small, university-based police station.

Because these small departments cater to numerous different stakeholders and work closely with the university administration, they ascribe to a unique philosophy that drives their organization. As such, finding the proper personnel who can acclimate to this environment remains the most important task of police administrators. Recruiters should target candidates who will embrace new law enforcement strategies and the daily tasks that accompany them. If not, ill-suited personnel will lead to poor morale and low retention rates.

Additionally, administrators cannot underestimate the importance of orientation and training for both young recruits and lateral hires. Even the most experienced law enforcement veterans must be informed of new policies, policing methodologies, and philosophies to ensure that they are a best fit for a university police department. This will ensure the satisfaction and effectiveness new hires, current officers, and the department as a whole.


1 Douglas L. Yearwood and Stephanie Freeman, “Recruitment and Retention of Police Officers in North Carolina,” The Police Chief 71 (March 2004): 43-49.