Understaffing, Low Pay Strain Oklahoma State U. Police Force

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.

During game weekends, some officers are off-duty for just six hours before going back to work, Altman said.

"It's not uncommon at all for our officers to occasionally work 18 to 20 hours a day," he said. "That's a long day."

Despite the long hours his officers work, the police chief doesn't see a problem.

"I don't think we're placing [officers] under undue risk by working them 12 hours. People are awake and working more than eight hours a day anyway. It's not like they sleep 16 hours a day," Robinson said.

Although officers' lives may not be in danger, their family lives can be. The divorce rate for police marriages is higher than that of civilian couples, Robinson said. After working 12 hours and sleeping for eight, officers are left with just a few hours to spend with their families.

To retain officers and limit turnover, the department requires new officers to commit to OSU for at least two years. Officers who are not state certified must commit for three years, he said, to allow for the additional time spent in training.

The contracts are an attempt to curb a rash of departures that have put patrol levels at one of the lowest in years, officials said.

As patrol numbers have gone down, some reported crimes have gone up, according to university crime reports. Robbery, burglary, car theft and arson have all increased since 2004. Sixty burglaries, three car thefts and one robbery occurred on campus in 2005, all increases from the year before.

Altman said while low patrol levels don't necessarily mean more crime, having extra officers on the streets would help deter criminals.

New buildings and security needs at OSU's Athletic Village will stretch the department even further, he said. Campus administrators see the need for more officers and have worked with police officials to get more funds for the department, Robinson said, calling them "tremendously supportive."

But when every university department wants to increase its budget, funds can't be doled out to them all, Robinson said, and police will have to make do for now.

"We do all we can with what we've got," he said.

(C) 2006 Daily O'Collegian via U-WIRE