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Campus Cops In Limbo

campus police vehicle

Every year, hundreds of arrests are made by police officers on private college campuses. The offenses range from public intoxication to drunk driving to sexual assault.  The officers making the arrests are fully licensed by the state; they carry firearms; and they are specially trained to work in a community made up mostly of 18 to 22 year olds.  But a case making its way through the North Carolina court system challenges their authority - and offers a different twist on the old arguments about the separation of church and state. 

At five-o’clock every Friday evening, a 50-bell carillon rings out from the Duke University Chapel, playing the alma mater. It’s a tradition started by former president Terry Sanford, who, among other things, also happened to be a progressive Methodist.

Sanford - and the carillon’s song - stand as examples of the dual roles played by many private colleges and universities, with one foot in the secular pursuit of higher learning and the other in the school’s religious roots.

And it’s just that parallel existence that might lead private universities in North Carolina - like Duke – to lose the right to operate their own police forces:

"If you’ve got a university totally or partially dominated by a religious organization, they have no business operating a security force of any kind."

Gerald Hayes, Jr. is an attorney in Dunn. In 1994, he sued Campbell University on behalf of a client who had been arrested near campus for driving while intoxicated. His argument then was simple, but new: Campbell University was then a strongly Baptist university, in essence a religious institution, and by operating a state-approved police force, it was violating the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution that separates church and state.

The case was backed by the ACLU and went all the way to the North Carolina Supreme Court.

Judge Willis Whichard was one of the justices who heard the case:

"When you have one like this that is unusual in its factual setting and that seven of the state’s best legal minds split 4 to 3 on, it’s memorable."

The 4-to-3 split went against Campbell. Whichard wrote the dissent. In his opinion, he argued that Campbell’s police officers were not charged with protecting or advancing a religious interest, but pledged to uphold state law.

But that opinion lost out, and Campbell’s police force was disbanded. The Harnett County Sheriff now patrols campus.

Still, other religiously affiliated private colleges continued to operate police forces. In 2005, the State Legislature passed the Campus Police act. It gave the attorney general the power to authorize private colleges to operate those police forces, even those “established by or affiliated with religious denominations.”

A year later, a pharmaceutical sales rep named Julie Anne Yencer was arrested for DUI by Davidson College police.

She pled guilty, but an appeals court overturned the conviction, citing the Campbell case and finding the Campus Police Act unconstitutional. Last month, a Durham attorney asked a judge to throw out a DUI case at Duke for the same reason.

Phil Johnson is the president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators. He says a college losing the right to operate its own police force would have a potentially devastating impact:

"In the case of Virginia Tech, for example, when an act of violence is unfolding, you want a response within minutes to save lives, and if that response comes from outside of the campus with law enforcement officials that are not familiar with the university setting and don’t know how to navigate the complexities of the campus, then it’s going to have a big impact."

North Carolina is on a legal island on this issue. Other state courts in Indiana and Michigan have found for the colleges in similar cases.

Even Gerald Hayes, the attorney who started it all with the case against Campbell, isn’t against every college with a religious affiliation operating a police force:

"Solely I think it depends on the extent of their affiliation. I would hasten to say unless there is some control by the religious organization, it’s probably OK."

Hayes argued that at Campbell in the 1990s, church and school were largely one and the same.

But at Davidson and Duke now, students can attend for four years and never think twice about the university’s historic religious affiliation, except for when the bells ring out across campus on a cool fall evening.

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