April 15, 2003

On Patrol With … CUPD

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“There is more to the college experience than just books,” Officer Steve Shirley of the Cornell University Police Department (CUPD) explained to me after dealing with a shoplifter at the Cornell Store last week.

This past Tuesday, I rode along with Shirley and Officer Scott Grantz ’99 while they patrolled in their SUV police cruiser. Shirley is a seven-year veteran of the force, and Grantz joined in August.

I met them and the rest of C-line — the 3-11 p.m. shift — in the meeting room where we listened to Officer in Charge Sergeant Randy O’Connor give the daily briefing. Prior to the briefing, there was a discussion of a prank pulled the night before by five Ithaca residents. They had faked a suicide call from a Blue Light Phone on one of the North Campus bridges.

The discussion then shifted tone to excited talk about the men’s hockey team’s chances at the then-upcoming Frozen Four: The CUPD is an active supporter of Cornell hockey.

O’Connor spoke under a sign that read, “Cornell Police will set the standard against which all campus law enforcement agencies measure their SUCCESS.”

He started with the weather report and then ran through various announcements, including a warning from a Massachusetts police department about a wanted con man who bought a $50,000 BMW with a false check and is suspected of being in the Cayuga Heights/Cornell area.

After the briefing, Shirley and Grantz got a call that a shoplifter had been caught at the Cornell Store. Normally, officers work alone, but Grantz is still undergoing field training and needs to ride with Shirley until he completes his 18 weeks of field training. He has already attended five months of police academy in Corning, N.Y.

The first question they asked the shoplifter was whether or not he was a student. On the trip to the store, Shirley explained that “a student is afforded a lot more leeway.”

The shoplifter revealed his name, year and address; he was a junior residing in Collegetown.

At first, the student was confrontational and defiant, but after Shirley matched the student’s tone by raising his voice, the student backed down and admitted to stealing a few pens and a jewelry case, together worth $10-15. According to a Cornell Store loss prevention employee, that figure is the average amount stolen during robberies at the store.

Shirley explained to him that because the suspect was a student, he would not be charged with larceny.

“People who are not students go to jail,” Shirley said.

Instead, he said, the student received a ticket to attend a Judicial Administrator hearing.

After being advised that he “learn from [his] mistakes,” the student became more relaxed and offered some praise for the CUPD.

“These officers do their jobs efficiently and respectfully,” he said.

Shirley did not leave the store before talking to small handful of employees, all of whom he knew on a first-name basis. He struck up conversations with all of them, asking how their latest bowling game was or how their spouses were doing.

Throughout the day, I was struck by how well these officers knew the community and were a part of it.

After the robbery incident, Shirley and Grantz laughed a little and Shirley said with a shrug, “You see everything here at the University — all kinds of personalities. Some are hostile, some are accepting.”

The CUPD is an anomaly in comparison to campus security at other colleges because it consists of deputized sheriffs. They carry real weapons: Glock Model 23 40-millimeter pistols. Back at the station in Barton Hall, they have a weapons locker full of shotguns and riot gear. They have a bomb-sniffing dog named Saber. They are officers of the law in the same manner as the Ithaca Police Department (IPD) or Cayuga Heights Police Department, which can cause occasional turf wars.

Because they are deputized sheriffs, CUPD officers can roam just about anywhere in Tompkins County. To complicate matters, parts of the University’s campus fall into the City of Ithaca and thus are part of IPD’s jurisdiction.

CUPD officers rarely venture off the University campus, though, so the two departments respect each other’s unofficial boundaries. But on some occasions, the CUPD has gone to Ives Bowling Center or Collegetown in order to break up fights; usually they go because they can respond faster than the IPD.

Many of the officers I spoke with explained that being a CUPD officer meant that they saw many different things, including theft, disturbed people, numerous fights on weekends and even some indecent exposure.

“We see a lot of indecent exposure in the libraries, and when it gets warmer, it spills over outside to Beebe Lake,” said Officer Jim Morrissett.

Later in the evening, we went to the J. Carlton Ward, Jr. Laboratory of Nuclear Engineering for a “property check.” One of CUPD’s responsibilities is to provide security for “sensitive areas,” which include the University’s nuclear reactor.

“We check [the reactor] more than anything else. I can’t say exactly how often without compromising security, but it’s a lot,” Shirley said.

Many CUPD officers responded positively when I asked them how they liked working for Cornell because although they are sheriffs, they are under the umbrella of the University. Grantz explained that he chose CUPD over larger and bigger organizations because he wanted to feel like “a part of the community.”

Shirley responded similarly.

“I never wanted to work anywhere else. I enjoy the atmosphere, the kids, the employees. … The administration has been great to us,” he said.

He said this even after begrudgingly mentioning that the biggest downside of working for the force is that they are not entitled to a standard police retirement. Instead they receive a typical University retirement, identical to ones given to janitorial staff.

After three and a half hours in the cruiser and an hour at the station, I left satisfied, with more respect for the officers at Cornell and the job they do daily.

Archived article by Michael Margolis