Understaffing, Low Pay Strain Oklahoma State U. Police Force

Crimes on rise at campus, but school is short staffed, forcing overworked conditions

The Oklahoma State University Police Department is understaffed and must add six patrol officers to reach levels equal to those of similar-sized schools, officials say.

The patrol shortage comes after a year when campus crimes, including robbery, burglary and car theft, were on the rise, according to the department's most recent crime reports.

Patrol officers work 12-hour shifts four times a week to keep enough squad cars on the street and may not be as alert as they should be, said Sgt. Matthew Metcalf.

"There are times when you are tired, it just happens," Metcalf said. "You do the best you can. It does take a toll."

Understaffing and high turnover rates have been chronic problems for the department, which pays substantially lower salaries than other Oklahoma police agencies - even after university-wide raises last summer.

As the most visible part of OSU's police force, patrol officers are also one of the lowest paid.

Their salaries are about 70 percent of comparable rates at other Oklahoma law enforcement agencies, said Capt. David Altman.

State-certified patrol officers make about $27,000 a year at OSU, according to university payroll documents. Entry-level Stillwater, Okla., police officers make about $30,000 a year.

As some officers leave for better-paying jobs, their positions are cut, said Capt. Richard Atkins.

Higher salaries drew away the department's two computer forensics experts, whose jobs are now outsourced to the Stillwater Police Department or Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, he said. Bicycle and foot patrols are also done less often than in the past.

Metcalf, who manages a patrol squad of three to six officers, said the university's insurance policy adds to the problem.

"The cost of insurance is absolutely horrible," he said. "How can someone like me afford to put my wife and my daughter on insurance? You can't here."

But police Chief Michael Robinson insists progress has been made, citing the raises given in July.

"These are problems that aren't going to be overcome in short order," he said. "You're taking a big pie and trying to split it up, and there's not enough to bring everybody up to where they need to be."

The Police Department, which is funded by the university rather than city government, is part of a school-wide struggle for funding, he said.

University budgets are "at the mercy of the state" Legislature, and the school must make do with what it is given, said Carrie Husley-Greene, OSU's associate director of communications.

To fight the dwindling workforce, administrators are recruiting officers from across the state. Three officers were hired and are in the state's police certification academy, which is required to become a police officer in Oklahoma. But the officers are only in the program's third week and won't be on the streets any time soon.

"It takes about a year from hiring until an officer is fully functional," Altman said.

Three other openings have not been filled, leaving just 15 officers to patrol the entire university, Altman said. When the positions are filled, funds currently paid for overtime will make up a portion of the new officers' salaries.

To keep an acceptable number of police on the street, OSU's patrol officers fill the gaps by working overtime.

Sporting events and other special circumstances, like Homecoming and Orange Peel, strain department resources even more.

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