In an effort to establish its own police department, the College of the Ozarks is trying to change Missouri law.
The top safety official on the college’s campus in Point Lookout said private colleges and universities just want the same option available to their public counterparts.
Kurt McDonald, director of properties and operation head of crisis management, said the private college wants to “have that next, and another, layer of safety and protection for our guests, students, faculty, staff.”
The change is motivated, in large part, by the prevalence of active shooters on school and college campuses.
“It just makes a stronger blanket of security on our campus,” he said.
The college worked closely with state Rep. Jeff Justus, a Republican from Branson, to craft the language of the proposed “Private College Campus Protection Act.”
Justus sponsored House Bill 105, which is making its way through the Missouri General Assembly along with the identical Senate Bill 129, sponsored by state Sen. David Sater, a Republican who represents parts of Barry, Lawrence, McDonald, Stone and Taney counties.
The proposed legislation, which was also introduced late in the 2018 session, is showing early signs of traction.
McDonald said the college employs 11 full-time officers in its Security Department and all officers have previous law enforcement experience and are certified by the Peace Officer Standards and Training Program, or POST.
The officers take incident reports, monitor the front gate, secure buildings and patrol the 1,000-acre campus 24 hours a day.
“We have taken a lot of unbelievable measures at the College of the Ozarks to make our current security officers better equipped,” he said.
McDonald said the set-up is working but has its limitations. He said the campus is in the jurisdiction of the Taney County Sheriff’s Office and the Missouri State Highway Patrol — and one or more respond if there is a major incident.
“Response times are good, but we want to be able to have our officers,” he said. “They are going to be the first responders within minutes.”
If the legislation is approved and signed by Gov. Mike Parson, the college plans to apply to the FBI to establish a police department on campus. The process is expected to take up to one year.
“When you become a police department, it allows you to draw on different databases,” he said. “Those are things we can’t connect to right now because we are not a law enforcement entity.”
For example, the college’s law enforcement agency — if it comes to pass — will be able to access fingerprints, warrants, the crime laboratory and information available through the Missouri State Highway Patrol.
McDonald said the sheriff’s office and highway patrol will retain jurisdiction over the campus, but the college police force will be more involved. He said the creation of the on-campus department is also about peace of mind.
“I’m a parent. My wife and I put three children through college,” he said. “… If something like this bill gets enacted, parents can say, ‘You know, that college campus is safe, they have a police department.'”
Under the federal Clery Act law, colleges and universities are required to make public a range of crime statistics. The college’s safety reports for 2014 through 2016 — the most recent years available online — include one drug violation in 2016, two burglaries in 2015 and four in 2017.
The proposed legislation does not include a fiscal note for the state. McDonald said the change, if it comes to pass, will be voluntary and private colleges and universities will be able to decide how much they want to invest in setting up a police force. He said the way the college set up its security department, the process of transitioning to a police department may be less expensive than an institution starting from scratch.
“I can’t really give you a dollar number, nor do I want to, because it depends on what you want to purchase in the way of equipment,” he said.
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