At Penn State, as at many colleges, campus police occupy an unusual and much-misunderstood spot on the law enforcement spectrum – and when scandal breaks, that often leads to questions about divided loyalties.
The latest developments in the sex abuse case there have put university's police front and center of some of the most prominent unanswered questions. Did Penn State officers thoroughly and professionally investigate allegations that former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky sexually abused children on campus, only to have their findings quashed by prosecutors and image-conscious university administrators who preferred to handle things in-house?
Or were the police themselves part of a cover-up?
The grand jury report alleging sexual abuse by Sandusky and perjury and failure to report by two university administrators – including the vice president who oversaw the campus police – suggests it was others who dropped the ball. But it also leaves many questions unanswered.
Campus police conducted a "thorough" investigation of one victim's allegations in 1998 along with local police and state investigators, the report says, only to have the district attorney decline to prosecute. And the report says university police were never notified by anyone at the university of assistant coach Mike McQueary's report he'd seen Sandusky rape a boy in a campus shower. While former vice president of finance Gary Schultz oversaw the police department, he is charged with breaking the law by failing to report the accusation to actual university police officers or other authorities.
But in an email obtained earlier this week by The Associated Press, McQueary insists he did "have discussions with police and with the official at the university in charge of police." That contradicts the grand jury report, however, and on Wednesday both police departments reiterated they had no record of any report by McQueary.
The grand jury report also leaves ambiguity about the tone and substance of the investigation campus police did conduct in 1998. For instance, when campus police Detective Ronald Schreffler and a state child welfare investigator interviewed Sandusky, the report says Sandusky admitted showering with the victim and "that it was wrong. Detective Schreffler advised Sandusky not to shower with any child again and he said that he would not."
For decades, campus police had reputations as Keystone Kops who couldn't hack it as "real" police and who spent most of their energy breaking up fights and busting keg parties, turning more serious matters over to local government authorities.
But in the last 20 years – and especially since the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings – things have changed so much that sometimes the reverse is now true. Most large universities, at least, have transformed their police forces into thoroughly professionalized forces that are very often better staffed, trained, equipped and even armed than their budget-strapped local counterparts. Officers often are former local police who want better pay and more support.
In small jurisdictions with large universities, local authorities often turn to university police for help. Penn State has 46 full-time armed officers, compared to 65 in surrounding State College. And because local police have broader responsibilities, campus police often have far more time and resources to conduct thorough investigations.
Another misconception: Campus police aren't real police. In many jurisdictions, including at Penn State, they're functionally no different than local officers – sworn to enforce the law, and authorized to conduct investigations and refer matters to local prosecutors. The grand jury report makes clear Penn State officials could have met their obligation to report child sex abuse allegations simply by notifying campus police officers.
But there are important differences. Campus police face additional regulations under the federal Clery Act, which requires them to publicly report campus crimes and warn students when they happen. The Department of Education is now investigating Penn State for possible Clery Act violations. Universities also face an array of civil requirements under Title IX governing how they must conduct sexual assault investigations, which could also come into play at Penn State.
Another difference particular to Penn State: because of a state law and its unusual status as a "state related" but not fully public institution, university police records are not open to the public, as municipal police reports would be.
Indeed, perhaps the biggest difference is campus police work for institutions – not elected officials and taxpayers – and often report their findings into parallel campus judicial systems that are typically set up to handle student infractions.
And therein lie inevitable concerns that campus police can be sucked into a culture that prefers to handle matters in-house and sweep embarrassing crimes under the rug.
"When you're dealing with some crime on the campus, it certainly raises some political concerns," said Douglas Tuttle, a campus safety expert who led the University of Delaware police force for 12 years and now teaches there. But he points out any police department could face similar pressures.
"If the city police get called and have to have some member of the (city) council arrested, that raises some of those same political questions," he said.
The two most high-profile alleged failures and cover-ups by campus police took place at Eastern Michigan University and Virginia Tech. Shortly after an EMU undergraduate was found dead in her dorm room in 2006, officials released a statement saying there was "no reason to suspect foul play." In fact, there were already clear signs she had been raped and murdered. The university eventually paid $350,000 in fines. EMU's president, public safety director and a vice president all lost their jobs.
Virginia Tech, meanwhile, plans to appeal $55,000 in federal fines levied against the school because its police allegedly failed to alert the campus quickly enough during the 2007 mass shooting that killed 32 students and faculty members.
Michael Dorn, a former university police officer and now executive director of Safe Havens International, a nonprofit group focused on campus security, said many universities – along with countless K-12 schools and religious institutions – remain poisoned by cultures that send a message to lower-level employees that preserving reputation is paramount.
"This culture, it's a decision with the leadership of an organization," he said. "It comes back to decision-making and a culture where people in authority are keeping a proper focus on serving the people they're supposed to serve."