CHIEF RALPH OLIVER

KU Office of Public Safety

| 2015 Q3 | story by LIZ WESLANDER   | photos by STEVEN HERTZOG |
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Chief Ralph Oliver


Ralph Oliver, Chief of Police at the University of Kansas Office of Public Safety, has been doing police work longer than most KU students, and some KU professors, have been alive. A Kansas City, Kan., native, Oliver began his police career in 1977 at the University of Kansas Medical Center, in Kansas City, Mo. He came to the KU Office of Public safety in 1984 as Assistant Chief and was appointed Chief of KU Police in 1997 – the same year that many of this year’s freshman class were likely born.

Oliver, naturally, has seen some changes during his tenure with the KU Police Department. Perhaps the most notable is the effect that cell phones and social media have had on the way the department receives and distributes information. When it comes to emergencies, students no longer run to the blue phones scattered throughout campus, they grab their cell phones. When students want information on sirens, alarms or emergency vehicles on campus, they no longer call the KU Police Department for answers, they hop on Twitter or look for an emergency text sent to their phones.

“It used to be when a crime occurred, you’d get one or two phone calls,” Oliver says. “Now, when something major happens, everybody dials 911. Although, we are seeing that students will often text each other first in an emergency, before they call 911, and we sure would like them to call us first.”

Another important change Oliver has seen over the years is a shift in the public perception of campus cops.

“Most people’s impression of campus police depends on when they were in college. If you were attending school pretty much before the ’80s, your perception was that it was just security officers. It’s changed,” Oliver says. “I think that the stigma of the old campus camp, or the mall cop, is slowly starting to wane. People are starting to see us and respect us as fully accredited law-enforcement officers, and that’s very helpful.”

While KU police officers possess the same training and authority as municipal officers, working with a population where the majority of the people are between 18 and 25 – a group Oliver says is more inspiring than challenging to work with – makes the job unique.

“The population tends to be very inquisitive and responsive,” Oliver says. “It’s a period of time when former high school students transition into young adults, and it’s a very positive thing to see them grow.”

One example of students’ responsive nature is the KU Student Senate’s proactive response to the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, following the police shooting of Michael Brown in 2014.

“We had started researching body cameras last year, and we had deployed about eight of them three or four months before Ferguson,” Oliver says. “But after Ferguson, the student body president came to us and asked what Student Senate could do to help us perform our jobs. We told them we would like to have body cameras on all the patrol officers that are out there, so they furnished us with 14 more cameras.”

Oliver says the department has always thought body cameras were a good idea. They have had in-car cameras in patrol cars for decades, he says, and body cameras are an extension of this tool.

“Body cameras are basically a witness with a very narrow perspective,” Oliver explains. “They allow us to review not only what happened in a particular incident, they also help us to ensure that our policies and procedures are being followed and can help guide training with officers so that we know that our citizenry is being respected and that everything is done properly.”

The KU Police Department’s geographical boundaries are small and concentrated – loosely marked by 11th Street to the north, 19th Street to the south, Louisiana Street to the east and Kasold Drive to the west. The department’s responsibilities also extend to university-owned buildings outside of this space, including the University of Kansas Edwards Campus, in Overland Park.

In addition to its nearly 30 accredited law-enforcement officers, the KU Police Department also has a team of security officers who help with day-to-day nonemergency security, such as building monitoring and lockups, student escorting and event security. Security officers are also stationed at the Edwards Campus and are responsible for all nonemergency security duties there. The Overland Park Police Department responds to emergency calls at the Edwards Campus.

Although some things have changed over the years for campus police, some things remain the same. As far as crime, Oliver says theft – both in housing and academic buildings – is far and away the most common issue on the KU campus. Campus life, he says, naturally lends itself to thefts of opportunity.

“In resident halls, students get the sense that this is their home,” Oliver says. They tend to leave doors unlocked and will fall asleep and leave their doors open. In libraries and academic buildings, people will get up and leave their belongings while they go into the stacks or go talk to a friend. This allows for opportunity-type thefts.”

In addition to theft, alcohol consumption is also a perennial issue of campus life, and KU is no different, Oliver explains.

“Consumption is a big issue for this age group across America,” he says. “It’s a concern because it leaves the people who consume vulnerable to other issues, such as sexual violence and criminal activity.”

The KU Office of Public Safety has a team of Community Services officers who address the subject of alcohol and related personal-safety issues through presentations to student groups at fairs and events, as well as upon request. One presentation involves a pair of vision-impairment goggles Oliver says gives the person wearing them the effect that they have consumed a certain amount of alcohol.

“We put them through a series of dexterity tests. It’s interesting for the person wearing the goggles but also for the people watching,” he explains.

Like alcohol abuse, sexual assault is a safety concern on college campuses across the country. The issue has been in the spotlight both nationally and at KU during the past year in the wake of increased reports of sexual assault on campuses and complaints about how universities are handling these reports. The KU Police Department is responsible for criminal investigations of sexual assault and stalking on campus, but the Institutional Opportunity and Access (IOA) office at KU also conducts separate investigations of sexual-assault accusations in order to ensure the University is complying with Title IX regulations.

“There is our obligation to the university as a police department, and then there is our obligation to the state,” Oliver says. “There are two separate investigations that occur, but there is cooperation between the two so that we can assist IOA in ensuring that a student is comfortable at this university and in classes, even down to escorting, if they request. It may be a hot topic at the moment, but it has always been an important topic for us.”

While KU Police Department officers receive yearly training on handling sexual-assault cases, Oliver says the University administration has taken the lead on educating the staff and student body on the issue.

In September 2014, KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little organized a task force to examine how the University of Kansas prevents and responds to sexual assaults. After spending eight months reviewing input from the university community and going over current policies, practices and sanctions, the group submitted a report to the chancellor in May 2015. The report included 27 recommendations, including creation of a central campus location where students could report and/or get information about sexual violence; requiring all freshmen – including fraternity members – to live in residence halls; and clarifying in the student code that KU could discipline students for off-campus incidents of sexual violence against other students.

In February 2015, Lawrence city commissioners approved a memorandum strengthening the partnership between city police and the University of Kansas in addressing sexual violence. It identifies how the police department and university can better share information, collect crime statistics, release emergency notifications and provide training.

Oliver says the KU administration’s support of the KU Police Department and the positive working relationship the department has with other local public-safety offices are invaluable to his department’s success.

“We only have 20-some officers, so when we invite 50,000 people to a football game or have a VIP visit like Obama, we are very fortunate that there is no question as to whether or not other departments will support us,” Oliver says. “And it goes both ways. We are very fortunate to have these relationships in this county.”

KU Office of Public Safety at a Glance

Chief – Ralph Oliver
Assistant Chief, Police Services – Chris Keary
2 Captains – one over Patrol Services and one over Community Services
2 Detectives
22 Patrol Officers
2 Community Services Officers

Support Staff:

Assistant Director for Civilian Services – Liz Phillips
1 Records Clerk (handles officers’ reports, subpoenas, etc.)
10 Dispatchers (only seven positions filled at the moment, recruiting for three)
20 Security Officers (currently recruiting to fill vacancies)
22 Student Security Officers (currently recruiting to fill a number of vacancies)

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