A Quiet Campus Upgrades Its Security

July 9, 2010

LeTourneau University's website points out that the small Christian institution in East Texas is "a 1,568 mile journey from L.A. and 1,452 miles from the Big Apple," and the distance is more than geographical. The university's 1,300 students are barred from drinking and smoking, and the most severe crime in a typical academic year at LeTourneau might be a stolen iPod or a freshman prank, like putting a car on a high pedestal so it can't be driven.

The Longview, Tex., campus has not grown any more like Los Angeles or New York in recent years. But despite the low and stable crime rate, LeTourneau has decided to beef up its security measures, and has, for the first time, supplemented its longstanding system of student security guards with a full-scale police department.

“As the university grows and the community grows around us, we felt that it was time to improve the professional presence that we have on campus as far as safety is concerned,” says Terry Turner, LeTourneau's chief of police.

For about 30 years, security at LeTourneau has rested in the hands of a force of unarmed but vigilant student security guards, who patrolled the campus and reported anything they saw -- from a broken lock to vandalism. After the university was founded in 1946 (as LeTourneau Technical Institute), a Longview police lieutenant was hired to watch over the campus at night, and students were added as means of additional campus protection. Not only did this benefit the university and provide sufficient safety, Turner says, but it gave the students a financial boost and a chance to learn valuable skills.

The security guards, who will not be replaced by the new police officers, are the university's "eyes and ears in the night." The dozen or so student guards are dedicated to protecting the safety of the campus and aren't afraid to report on their peers.

Nick Yeakley takes a full load of classes and chooses to wake up in the wee hours for his four-hour patrolling shift at 4:00 a.m. Some of the guards come from military backgrounds, and some, like Yeakley, hope for a career in law enforcement after they graduate -- but none of them take their responsibilities lightly. Though Yeakley hopes to gain experience, his primary reason for choosing the job, he says, was his "great desire to serve and protect [his] fellow students."

Photo: LeTourneau U.

Some of LeTourneau University's police officers and student guards

Though LeTourneau is not unique in its security guard system, it was in the minority without its own police department. “It is probably more common for colleges and universities to have some sort of police or security department,” says Christopher Blake, associate director for the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators. As of 2005, 74 percent of institutions with at least 2,500 students had law enforcement agencies employing sworn police officers, according to the most recent Campus Law Enforcement Study, released by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2008. Statistics on smaller institutions like LeTourneau were not available, but the numbers are similar, Blake said.

Driven partly by national concerns about incidents like the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, Turner determined that a campus police department would help instill confidence in campus security for parents and prospective students. Over the past several years, biannual student surveys have shown an increase in students’ desire for stronger security, and so the university administration was willing to accept Turner's plans. Even though the university has never had a "historical need" for a police department, Turner says LeTourneau is adapting with the times.

The campus now has four sworn police officers, in addition to the 11 student security guards, but Turner’s ultimate goal is to hire enough police to have an officer patrolling the grounds 24 hours a day, seven days a week. To meet this goal in the next few years, the police department is now in the process of expanding its facilities. But getting there wasn't easy. Creating a full-fledged campus police department took time, consideration and money.

“It is a rather challenging prospect,” Turner said. “The first thing you have to have is a realization across the board that there is a need for that.” Since Turner joined LeTourneau in 2000, he has been considering ways to grow and improve the security force; after it reached its full potential, he began lobbying the administration for police.

He developed three potential models, drawing on ideas from about 30 other colleges and universities similar in size and circumstance. He considered outsourcing police officers, creating a hybrid force of police officers and security guards, or completely rethinking the security guard system, leaving police entirely out of the picture. Together with university administrators, Turner settled on the hybrid option and began to set goals and timelines to get the plan under way.

“I wouldn’t say the decision was difficult, but I think it was deliberate. We were deliberate in our choice which way to go,” says William McDowell, LeTourneau’s executive vice president for business and administration, who was involved in the process.

After clearing it with the university, Turner secured a state agency number and discussed the burgeoning police force with the municipal police department in Longview. Then he was ready to hire his staff, but with more personnel come more costs. The university must provide training, equipment, uniforms, and facilities in which the officers can train and operate.

“We’ve been adding a new officer every year to the operating budget -- it’s a pretty significant investment, but with the growth we’ve had, it’s a worthy investment," McDowell said, but declined to give a specific sum.

The first two officers to join the department were men Turner knew from his career as a municipal police officer. Others heard of the new police department and became interested in the job and the situation.

“As a career law enforcement officer of 30-plus years, I wanted to work in an environment in which I could pass on my life experiences to students and teach them the importance of making ethically sound and moral decisions,” Officer Scott Sartain, one of LeTourneau’s new additions, said via e-mail. He added that he is also interested in working in the university setting, functioning as it does with a slightly different philosophy than a regular police department.

Because of LeTourneau's Christian standards, its police force filters its decisions through a religious lens. “The legal system is based out of Judeo-Christian research in the first place, so we’re already on good ground there,” Turner says. His police take a more redemptive -- rather than punitive -- approach to crime, offering a disciplinary process involving counselors and restitution instead of a citation, for example.

“There are areas of the law where we use the full force of the law,” Turner says. “But there are circumstances in young people’s lives where they make really poor decisions, and we have the opportunity to guide someone away from that decision… to want to make better decisions, so as they go through their college career they do a little bit more growing up.”

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