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SHERIDAN — Sheridan College is the only community college in Wyoming that keeps certified peace officers on staff to handle legal affairs on campus. One could argue that it’s either because of, or perhaps in spite of this, that campus crime rates scrape rock bottom.
The Sheridan College campus police force consists of two full-time and three part-time police officers. As employees of the college and not the city or county, full-time officers are housed on campus and provide a 24-hour policing and security service to the approximately 400 students who live on college grounds and the thousands more who visit daily for classes.
Chief Jason Vela has invested more than a decade into providing safety and security to Sheridan’s institute of higher learning, and said his lifestyle is one that is unique to colleges and police officers alike.
“We follow a ‘true community’ policing model,” Vela explained. “A lot of officers say they have that model, but they don’t actually live in the environment. We truly do live in our community. This is my neighborhood as much as it is the students’ neighborhood.”
Sheridan College Marketing and Public Information Director Wendy Smith explained the maintenance of an autonomous police force that can carry out arrests and conduct investigations is an investment in a tradition that dates back more than 40 years. While other community college campuses rely on city and county police, often in conjunction with a private security force, the Sheridan College Campus Police provide for comprehensive law and campus regulation enforcement.
Vela said the big difference in campus security is demonstrated by what level of support a college needs from city police resources if an incident arises.
“A security officer can’t make an arrest. They have to call a police officer to make an arrest. We’re just skipping the middle man, if you will,” he said. “We can handle our own problems here. We can do all our own investigations.”
In the instance that someone is arrested on campus, they are transported by Sheridan College police to the Sheridan County Detention Center. If the infraction is not arrest worthy, but warrants that a ticket be issued, they are written into Sheridan County Circuit Court. Both the Sheridan Police Department and Sheridan County Sheriff’s Office are available to provide backup assistance to the college police force if necessary.
In addition to holding the authority of a Wyoming Peace Officer on all Northern Wyoming Community College District property in Sheridan and Gillette , which includes satellite buildings like those on Main and Broadway Streets, Sheridan College campus police also have jurisdiction to enforce ordinances anywhere within the city of Gillette and are working to re-establish a similar agreement with the city of Sheridan.
Vela said jurisdiction within the city of Sheridan is presently under negotiation. While in the past, Sheridan College police were generally accepted as law enforcement officer within the community at large, recent discoveries have unveiled no written agreement between the city and Sheridan College police existed.
“We found out there has never been an agreement with the city of Sheridan since the 70s,” Vela said. “It was always done with a handshake and a smile, but they never filled out the paperwork. We’re in the process of getting that done.”
The only other college in Wyoming that employs full-fledged police to work on campus is the University of Wyoming in Laramie.
“Because of our size and the makeup of our student body, I think ti’s fair to say our police force has an important relationship with our students,” Smith said. “It’s nice they know who they are because they’re around all the time.”
Vela stressed Sheridan College Police continuously train and update emergency preparedness plans to maintain public safety at the highest level possible both during day-to-day operations and during unexpected emergencies.
By far, the biggest law infraction that occurs on the Sheridan College main campus is minors being in possession or consumption of alcohol. Every year, MIP tops the list of reportable offenses on the school’s annual security report. Recently tallied statistics from the 2013 calendar year show there were 50 MIP arrests during the year. That number is up from 29 in 2012, but down from 72 in 2011 and 76 in 2010.
“We don’t have a huge underage drinking problem here, but that is a crime that we’re going to enforce.” Vela said.
While “traditional” college students, those out of high school, are a shrinking demographic among community colleges across the country, in Sheridan, they make up the largest percentage of students who utilize on-campus housing, and therefore, a significant amount of alcohol use or possession on campus is illegal based on statutory circumstances alone. Vela also commented that some of the incident numbers seem inflated because some students racked up multiple infractions.
The next most common reported incidents on the Sheridan College campus were motor vehicle violations, noise complaints and vandalism or obstruction of property. In all, Sheridan College Police responded to approximately 200 cases in 2013.
“We have to report every case, whether it’s legit or not,” Vela said, indicating only about 170 of those cases were substantiated calls. “People have to realize crime does happen on campus and we’re very up front about it because it’s mandated by federal law that we have to be.”
While having a full-time police force on campus seems to be a brazen example of an overbearing presence of the “Fuzz,” Vela said he enjoys a cooperative relationship with the vast majority of Sheridan College students and faculty, and it’s their request for support that keeps him busy.
“We patrol actively and do our best, but it’s not like we’re knocking on people’s doors and smelling around,” Vela said. “Last year, 86 percent of the things we responded to were complaints from other students. We are a reactionary force. People are often surprised to hear that.”
Vela said in general, campus police activity is generated by public or student request nearly 90 percent of the time.