At USF main campus, police staffing raises fears

Pay and benefits hurt hiring and retention, officials say.

Published December 26, 2007

TAMPA - At the north end of campus, University of South Florida police Officer Matt Jacoby waits to catch speeding vehicles along Fletcher Avenue.

Officer Tess O'Brien aims her radar gun from an adjacent patrol car. The county road is a recently created slow-speed zone that USF police help enforce.

But while the two officers spend 90 minutes on a recent Monday searching for violators, no other armed officers are patrolling the more than 1,500 acres and 270 buildings of USF's main campus.

Department officials say the low staffing is increasingly common, due to shrinking manpower and the lack of competitive benefits to recruit new hires.

And as USF and its police union head to a third-party magistrate to settle deadlocked contract negotiations, the department struggles to compete with better-paying agencies such as the Tampa police and the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office.

USF has one armed officer for every 916 students at the Tampa campus, and the majority have less than five years' experience. The University of Florida, by comparison, has one officer for every 564 students, a ratio USF hasn't had in several years.

An independent campus security assessment, released this month, called the hiring and retention of police personnel "an immediate and growing problem brought about, in part, by a noncompetitive compensation package."

Consultant Hallcrest Systems warned that although reported campus crimes fell 11 percent last year, service calls are rising and "the university is completely open to the surrounding neighborhoods, some of which have significant violent crime rates and illegal drug activity."

Said Sgt. Mike Klingebiel, an 18-year veteran involved in contract talks: "There's nothing that is preventing the outside world from encroaching on this environment except our diligence. At some point we will have to make a life or death decision."

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Administrators insist they're dedicated to students' safety and to improving officers' compensation.

USF spokesman Ken Gullette points out the police department was spared in recent budget cuts. President Judy Genshaft recently assigned a human resources employee to focus on recruiting new officers. Lt. Meg Ross, police spokeswoman, said two officers arrived in the past two weeks, raising the ranks to 42.

Administrators also have budgeted $200,000 through the end of the year for private security guards from Allied Barton to patrol around residence halls and other high-traffic areas. They're negotiating to keep Allied guards through 2008, but have not disclosed how much it would cost.

Some officers say the guards are a helpful set of extra eyes, freeing officers from nonsecurity tasks.

But others, including some student government leaders, point out the guards are unarmed and have no arrest powers.

Officers like Jacoby fear the situation will worsen without a contract that guarantees higher starting salaries and the chance to earn raises over time.

"We've lost six or seven people in the year I've been here," says Jacoby, 30.

When an officer leaves and isn't replaced, officers feel the strain. "On any given call, you need at least two to three officers to respond. Usually that's our whole patrol squad that shift," Jacoby says.

"If we had an active shooter right now, I just don't know that we'd have enough officers to even enter the building. That worries me."

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Robin Ersing, an assistant professor in USF's school of social work, began researching campus crime and its relationship to surrounding neighborhoods well before police contract talks began.

Some officers point to her findings as proof they need more resources.

Of the 1,431 campus arrests between 2000 and 2005, Ersing found that 60 percent of perpetrators had no affiliation with USF. They came from surrounding neighborhoods.

The findings highlight the risks posed by USF's metropolitan setting. Just last month, USF police helped Hillsborough sheriff's deputies block off an area at Bruce B. Downs Boulevard and 131st following a shooting west of campus. Last year, former USF employee and graduate student Ron Stem was fatally shot outside a campus residence hall. Police charged three teenagers with the slaying.

"We're not apart from the community, we're a part of the community," Ersing said. "It creates some unique opportunities for people who want to come here and commit crimes."

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The Police Department's annual budget of nearly $3.8-million includes 49 officer positions.

And this year, a $318,000 county grant is supposed to pay for four additional officers and two cars, in exchange for USF assuming additional patrol responsibilities in an area near campus dominated by student apartments and bars.

But 11 positions, including the county-funded ones, remain vacant.

Police and union officials blame pay.

Starting pay for USF officers is $35,041, about $4,000 less than other local police agencies. There's no "step plan" guaranteeing raises based on years of service. USF also doesn't offer take-home patrol cars or the chance to work for specialized units like a SWAT team.

Jacoby says the department wants a SWAT team but doesn't have adequate resources for training. The department also has a boat for patrolling part of the Hillsborough River within its jurisdiction, yet all but one of the officers trained to operate it have since left, said spokeswoman Ross.

It wasn't until recently that four patrol officers and two sergeants were trained to use a semiautomatic rifle that would be needed to take down the kind of shooter that terrorized Virginia Tech earlier this year. Jacoby is one of them.

"Before this, we didn't have enough to go head to head with anybody who might come to campus and start shooting," he says. "Other agencies will come to help if we need it. But if you've got a shooter, you can't wait."

USF's police ranks are so thin that the department enlists the help of Florida Fish and Wildlife officers during large events like this month's graduation ceremonies.

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It's a few minutes past 6 on a Monday morning. Jacoby is starting his 12-hour shift.

An alarm at the USF Alumni Center is going off. He investigates it himself because there aren't enough officers working to allow him a partner.

He treads carefully through the building, flashlight in one hand and his gun drawn.

"You need more than one person for something like that," he says. "There're these big hallways, you're alone in the dark. That's a little bit scary."

Nine hours later, Jacoby is back in his patrol car, pulling over a speeder along Fletcher Avenue.

And hoping the campus stays quiet.

Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at svansickler@sptimes.com or 813 226-3403.