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magazine home > archives > summer 2004 > features

The University of Memphis posted the lowest crime rate in 2003 compared to the 10 largest universities in Tennessee. Aided by a mutual assistance agreement with the Memphis Police Department, the University Police are working to maintain a high level of safety.

All in a Day's Work
by Jamie Peters

On quiet nights like this one, even Sgt. Geymone Butler's police radio seems uncomfortable with the long bouts of silence. Several messages trickle in over a two-hour period, as if the radio is reminding Butler of its existence by occasionally crackling with a call from the dispatcher.

 
Sgt. Butler
 
Sun down to sun up: As a member of the U of M Police Department's "Charlie" team, Sgt. Geymone Butler patrols an approximately 1,200-acre area from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.

The dispatcher's voice informs Butler of a student's complaint about someone who is using the washing machine in one of the housing areas.

Another student calls the campus police to ask for a ride from one end of the campus to the other.

Later, a broken parking lot gate is reported.

"Things are winding down," Butler says, after delivering a warning to the laundry room interloper with two other officers and inspecting the severed gate.

As Butler surveys the streets, parking lots and shadows cast by buildings, University of Memphis students huddle inside their apartments, cramming for tests or writing papers during finals week in late April. Outside, all signs among the roughly 1,200 acres the University of Memphis Police Department patrols point to a low-key evening on this Tuesday night at 10 p.m.

Statistics also promise a relatively sedate night. The number of crime incidents almost always decline near the end of the spring semester, say officials at the U of M Police Department. Moreover, the U of M just reported the lowest crime rate of the 11 largest universities in Tennessee for 2003, and it continues to implement numerous measures to stem crime.

Butler works on the "Charlie" team of the campus police, which means his 12-hour shift will run through 6 a.m. As Butler's patrol car travels the University streets, he encounters mainly foot traffic as an occasional pair of students with books in hand walks down the sidewalks.

Still, Butler knows the calm can give way to turbulence in an instant, where routine service tasks of unlocking doors for University employees may be interrupted by more dire matters. "You're taught in the academy that things can go to heavenly to hellish in a minute," says Butler. He's learned that through years of experience on the job, which includes time working as a corrections officer for the penal system in Henning, Tenn., a police officer in Millington and a narcotics and investigations officer for the Sheriff's Department in Tunica County, Miss.

Butler backs up his words with physical evidence. He points to the back of his patrol car, which still bears signs of damage from a recent incident. Around 3 a.m. on a mid-April morning, U of M officers, including Butler, responded to a disturbance call at the Richardson Towers dorms. According to campus police reports, a male student refused to return to his room and made threatening remarks to the officers as he punched and kicked the dorm's walls and yelled obscenities. After the student was placed in Butler's car, he kicked out the right rear window and bent the doorframe, causing estimated damages of $1,400. The student was charged with felonious vandalism and put in jail.

Incidents like this one help keep officers like Butler sharp. In turn, officers like Butler are helping the University keep crime rates down. The most recent figures spotlight a department that is making significant strides in controlling crime. According to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation's (TBI) Crime on Campus Report for 2003, the U of M reported 24.8 incidents per 1,000 people on campus, which vaulted it to the top spot ahead of the 10 other largest universities in the state for the first time in four years. That's slightly higher than U of M's 22.9 incidents per 1,000 people in the University population in 2002 when it scored the second lowest crime rate. Bruce Harber, director of U of M Police Services (BPS '91) says the reason for the difference in the year-over-year figures is best summarized by TBI officials' explanation that the gap was largely due to more accurate reporting methods implemented throughout the overall system. In addition, Harber says 2002 was an exceptional year for campus safety. "Crimes that you normally would look for just did not occur," says Harber, who oversees the University's 30 state-certified, commissioned officers.

Larceny and thefts remain the most common crimes on campus, accounting for nearly 50 percent of offenses. The department continues to add video cameras in academic buildings and parking lots throughout campus, which has helped it arrest people who have stolen property from buildings, Harber says. The campus police also frequently communicate to staff, students and faculty through e-mails and other means the importance of locking car and office doors. "The way you prevent crime is you let people know it exists," says Harber.

Strengthening community ties

In October 2003, the U of M signed a mutual assistance agreement with the Memphis Police Department that extends the campus department's jurisdiction deeper into the communities surrounding the University. As a result, the MPD now might refer calls to the U of M police dispatcher, or area residents may call the campus department, which may be able to respond more swiftly to an incident. "From the citizen's standpoint, we should be able to get there much quicker because we're so close," says Harber. The agreement also eliminates certain gray areas concerning the legalities of department officers making police arrests off campus property, Harber says.

Harber
Bruce Harber, director of U of M Police Services (BPS '91), says the mutual assistance agreement his department signed last year with the Memphis Police Department enhances the flexibility of both departments in responding to calls.

Because this agreement shifts more responsibility to the campus police, its drafted language specifies that the supervisors possess the right to make a decision about whether or not to handle a call. Factors depend on the severity of the event and how swamped the campus police are with pressing matters at the time, Harber says.

One incident that underscores the importance of the agreement was a home invasion crime in late 2002. Three U of M officers responded to an aggravated robbery/home invasion call. Several residents met them at the apartment complex, and said they had seen some men who did not live there enter one of the units. When two night shift officers from the U of M arrived they caught two suspects in the middle of a robbery, including one who was hiding in the closet with a resident he had tied up. A third man escaped out a window, but the MPD caught him the next day. The University police were responsible for catching the men who previously committed several home invasions in the area.

In the wake of the agreement, U of M police also are working on a joint venture with the MPD to establish a "mini precinct" staffed by officers from each department on nearby Highland. The initiative is currently referred to as the "University Station" and is slated to begin sometime during this fall, according to Harber. "And this is part of the University's reaching out and helping the community," he says.

Since the country's heightened security after 9/11, the U of M police also have increased their role in protecting dignitaries on campus. In March, Harber, deputy director Derek Myers (BA '92) and another campus officer stood closely by as former South African president F.W. de Klerk addressed an audience at the Holiday Inn at the U of M.

Equipped with new resources

The department holds "CampuStat" meetings, in which Harber or Myers present incident data from the most recent week through charts in PowerPoint format. This method, which the department adopted from a similar practice at the MPD, helps shine a light on certain crime patterns. Through the earlier method an officer might "read a stack of papers, and maybe didn't see the problem," Myers says. A number of officers and U of M staff members, representing areas such as Greek Affairs to residence life, attend the meetings, which also contain related information garnered from weekly MPD reports.

U of M President Shirley Raines and Charles Lee, vice president of business and finance, have directed additional resources to the department over the last several years, recognizing the importance of campus safety to the University's image. About two years ago the force got five new squad cars to replace older vehicles. Although U of M police still get paid about 30 percent less than officers at the MPD or Shelby County's Sheriff's Office, their salaries were "bumped up" some in 2003, Harber says.

"We're on the right road. It's just we've got to make up for some prior years," Harber says. The work schedule of 12-hour shifts is organized so that each officer basically works seven out of every 14 days. This allows many of them to bring in additional income through secondary jobs, many of which are in a law enforcement capacity. The salary raise has helped reduce officer attrition at the department, Harber says. That, in turn, creates a trickle-down effect: Higher retention rates translate to more experienced officers and, by extension, a more effective force.

For Sgt. Butler, 14 years in law enforcement have helped smooth out his more tempestuous demeanor of his early career, yielding a more levelheaded, rational approach. He gives credit to one primary mentor. "A lot of other people have helped me along the way, but time is the best one," Butler says.

 

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