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Are Campus Police the Same as 'Real' Police?

By Andrew Chow, Esq. | Last updated on

University and college campus police often act like "real" police, but do they have the same legal authority as other law-enforcement agencies?

A campus police officer at the University of South Alabama in Mobile shot and killed a naked student this month who allegedly "rushed and verbally challenged the officer in a fighting stance," CNN reports. The officer who killed Gilbert Thomas Collar, 18, of Wetumpka, Ala., was put on leave pending internal and external investigations.

So, do campus police have the authority to use deadly force?

It depends on whether the school is public or private, along with the laws in the state where the school is located.

Public universities are typically allowed to hire sworn police officers, and state laws dictate the scope of those officers' powers, Slate reports.

For example, in California, public university police officers can make arrests 24 hours a day, while a private college's officers can only do so when they're officially on duty, according to Slate.

In Alabama, a public school police officer (like the University of South Alabama officer who shot and killed the naked student) is "a peace officer whose authority extends to any place in the state," according to the law. However, the officer's use of his authority must be related to law-enforcement on the college campus where he is employed.

Alabama law also specifically allows certain private universities to hire campus police officers. These officers "shall be charged with all the duties and invested with all the powers of police officers," the law states, with some restrictions.

Other states like Virginia also allow both public and private universities to have their own sworn campus police forces, with the same or similar powers as other police forces, Slate reports.

But some campus police are more limited in their powers. This is especially true when a school contracts with a private security firm for campus patrols. Such police are more akin to mall cops: They may be armed, but they can only detain suspects until full-fledged police officers respond.

Though the University of South Alabama police officer may have had the authority to use deadly force, the investigations will likely focus on whether the officer's actions were proper under the circumstances. Either way, Gilbert Thomas Collar's surviving relatives are likely considering a wrongful death lawsuit over the college freshman's killing.

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