College of the Ozarks really wants its own police department.
Despite rejections the past two years, college officials were back in the capitol Monday pushing again for a law they say they need to better secure the campus in an age of mass shootings.
Rep. Jeff Justus, R-Branson, began a committee hearing on his latest bill with a list of everything else the college has tried to get sworn officers dedicated to their campus.
The college’s campus isn’t within nearby Hollister, so police there can’t help, and Justus said Taney County has declined to commission college security as deputies to avoid liability issues.
“So they keep coming back to a police department the college would fund and run,” he said.
The college already has security officers, but currently only public colleges can have officers who can make arrests and access training opportunities and toolslike fingerprints, warrants and the state’s crime lab.
Kurt McDonald, the college’s crisis management chief, described the change as a needed upgrade on a growing campus that may not have time to wait for Taney County sheriff’s deputies to arrive in a crisis.
McDonald said dedicated college police officers would also be more attuned to campus culture than sheriff’s deputies simply assigned to Point Lookout.
“It’s a culture all in itself,” McDonald said. “Students act differently, they behave differently. It takes a different type of mindset to deal with students. … You bring outsiders in, they don’t understand the culture, and their primary responsibility is back to that sheriff.”
For some lawmakers, that last part sounded good, though.
Rep. Justin Hill, a Republican from Lake St. Louis who used to be a police officer, peppered college officials with concerns about putting law enforcement under a private board.
He wondered, for instance, who would consider a complaint against a college police officer.
“Would they go to the (college) that has an interest in protecting themselves from liability?” he asked.
He also wondered about public records: how could be people be sure the college would release police reports?
College officials assured him they would behave honorably, but Hill said he’d rather see public authorities handle things.
“The issue is you have a sheriff or commission that’s not willing to recognize that a really important institution in their county really needs to provide more safety,” Hill said. “You’re here in Jefferson City because you can’t solve a local issue.”
In a separate interview, Taney County Sheriff Jimmie Russell said he won’t commission college officers because he doesn’t want to take responsibility for people who don’t work for him. He wouldn’t say what he thinks of the bill.
Rep. Sara Walsh, R-Ashland, also questioned the idea and asked whether there’s anything the legislature could do to soothe the county’s liability concerns.
She acknowledged worries about outside deputies not fitting in on campus, but said training could probably help with that.
McDonald nevertheless asked for a shot and said the university would be fine with the legislature revisiting the issue after five years of operation.
“In five years, if you don’t think we’re doing a proper job, then you can take it away,” McDonald said. “But I don’t think you’re going to find that.”
The committee did not vote on the bill Monday, which is what usually happens when it hears a bill for the first time in a given year.
The legislation is House Bill 1282.
An “online exclusive” is an article or story that does not run in the print edition of the Houston Herald but appears on the newspaper’s website. Typically 2 or 3 are posted online every Wednesday morning. It’s another feature designed for users who purchase full web access from the Herald.