Why do Ithaca and Cornell have two separate police forces?

CUPD: the long arm of the administration

By Chris Skawski


Art by Melvin Li

About a year ago, CUPD came under fire for allegedly questioning several student protesters ahead of Cornell’s 150th birthday. The students, who had participated in and been identified as organizers, were pulled in to answer questions about their organizing practices and were told, “Disruptions to Charter Day would not be tolerated.” Basically, the administration came down on a group of students using cops to keep them from acting out during a university event.
Student protestor Daniel Marshall ’15 was accused of breaking into the Statler Auditorium. There was no lock on the door, according to the Fight the Fee group that backed Marshall, which meant that he technically broke no laws, so the argument goes. CUPD came at the issue differently; they threatened Marshall with a charge of burglary, according to the Fight the Fee website and a statement made by Cornell Vice President of University Relations Joel Malina, which carries a three-year prison sentence, and told him that if he did not comply he would be “led from class in handcuffs.”
This is the same CUPD, by the way, that issues weekly “Blue Light Emails” reminding you about icy walkways and to put reflectors on your bike.
Wait, wait, wait, you may wish to say to me—how is it that one organization can take on both of these roles? What even is CUPD?
CUPD, despite its ubiquity, isn’t exactly all that straightforward. It is a large, varied organization that handles all security on Cornell’s campus and affiliated off-campus property. It employs 76 people, including dispatch officers, K-9 teams, Blue Light Escorts, Patrol Officers, and of course, Chief Kathy Zoner.
For starters (I did not know this at the start of writing this piece), some of these officers can arrest you, and others cannot. Some of them are allowed to carry firearms, and others are not. Some are permitted to carry, according to New York State Law concerning campus police forces,  “police batons and other noxious materials” to enforce the law and prevent crime. In a sense, some of the people employed by CUPD are police officers and others are not.

“But it’s the same department that can be, and has been, a tool of control.”

More specifically, 51 CUPD members are “Special Deputies to the Sherriff” of Tompkins County. They are sworn in by the State of New York and attend the same municipal police-training center as Ithaca Police Department (IPD) officers. Their appointment is prescribed under NYS Education law (Sections 5708 and 5709, if you’re curious).
If I had to explain CUPD in a sentence: Cornell University employs real live, actual police officers as part of its on campus security force. This isn’t a unique system either. The Ithaca College Public Safety Department (ICPS) also employs sworn Sherriff’s deputies tasked with patrolling IC’s campus. They, too, can detain and arrest you for breaking the law and/or violating the campus code of conduct, even if you’re not an IC student. They function in just the same way; they call in Sheriffs or State Police to assist in certain investigations; they employ student staff. They provide the service of law to the somewhat autonomous community of IC in much the same way CUPD does.
But let’s put a pin in that for now and examine the other services provided by CUPD. The other 25 members of the department are a mixture of administrators, dispatch officers, auxiliary officers, and student staff. None of these staff members can arrest or detain you; they are parts of the system that backs up those CUPD staff that can stop, search, detain, or use force against you.
“Security guard-trained teams” and Residential Advisors provide “eyes and ears” for active officers, according to the annual Campus Watch brochure put out by CUPD. These “eyes and ears” can issue referrals to the Judicial Administrator and report crimes to officers if an incident warrants further action.
These other facets of CUPD help to provide the highest level of security possible to the Cornell community. They spread the net as wide as possible so that campus security may be upheld. As one ICPS officer put it to me when I asked him about it, “as a paying student you’d want those layers of protection.”
And you just might—CUPD answers to University officials. Their first level of action is a JA, something they give out quite often. Most of the students who run into CUPD end up with a trip to Basics, but not prison. The Campus Watch brochure shows that the vast majority of punitive actions doled out are referrals for drug and alcohol violations.
As Sergeant Dunn (of ICPS) said, “New York State law is more punitive” than campus judicial practices, with campus policies typically focused on educational goals. What is more, JAs are protected by FERPA (a complicated federal law) which locks your educational record from, say, potential employers. People who have done prison time enjoy no such protection.
So if you’re 18 and a campus security officer catches you with a can of beer somewhere on Ho Plaza, you don’t get arrested (like a friend of mine did while walking off-campus)—you get a slap on the wrist and a course in what alcohol does to your body.
Cornell is insulated in more ways than you might expect. The legal code governing you changes as you walk down the street. It changes when you step out of your dorm room and onto a public road.
But beyond that, because of the specially tailored nature of a campus-security detail, CUPD and departments like it across the country, are able to provide services that municipal peace officers could only dream about. The Blue Light system is an excellent example of this. Between a unique security regimen and the benefits of private property, Cornell University offers a beautiful network of callboxes with officers standing by to respond to any emergency that might require attention.
The campus judiciary system is not immune to failures, of course. No police force can prevent or respond to every complaint. But among systems that can be created to address that issue, ours is one that goes above and beyond.
The Blue Light emails have even reminded me on occasion about hazardous conditions. Security officers have played instrumental roles in making sure that large-scale gatherings (such as alumni events) are appropriately staffed, directed, and secured for the Cornell community as a whole. They even very kindly reminded me via a $50 parking ticket that I hadn’t adhered to parking regulations.
And yet I can’t just dispel this feeling that something isn’t right. And I think that the big problems with this system come from the very thing that gives it strength: Cornell University has complete power over how their police force is structured and operates.
When I received an email from Deputy Chief Honan in the course of our correspondence in which he defines the function of CUPD as, among other legitimate law-enforcement goals, the enforcement of “other university policies and procedures,” I tensed up a little bit.  CUPD is bound, according to its mission statement, to uphold not just the law, but the Cornell Campus Code of Conduct.
Direction of the department lies with the President of the University, according to the law. He or she can request or suspend more or fewer officers as deemed fit. They can delegate to the Executive Vice President and CFO direct oversight, who can, in turn, rely on the Chief for the day-to-day operations of officers and affiliates. All perfectly legal.
What this boils down to is that CUPD can, and does, function as an arm of the administration. When the Cornell Campus Code of Conduct states, “academic and administrative work of the university must be allowed to operate unhindered at all times,” it gives CUPD a license to do more than issue tickets for noise violations.
I’m not going to pretend that that directive is somehow an unfair overreach on the part of the University, but I can point out that a broad reading (or a guided one) of the phrase “administrative work” could include a lot of student activities. If the administration feels that an action might disrupt their work, they have a written justification for going after it.
Last year a couple hundred students raised their voices against administrative decisions with which they disagreed and they became a bit disruptive, as politically minded students tend to do. But when that disruption threatened an interest of the University, the administration used their very legal power of policing to try to control student expression.
What is true is that Daniel Marshall violated Campus Code by entering the Statler auditorium. He even admitted to it and pleaded the charge down; after the Charter Day celebrations, on May 4, VP Malina announced in a statement that the protester had cooperated and accepted the JA. What is also true is that a police force was used in a coercive manner against a student because of his politics.
That’s where it all rests. Campus security is legal, well structured, and beneficial to our functioning as a community; taken in that light, CUPD is a force for good that seeks to keep us all a little safer. But it’s the same department that can be, and has been, a tool of control. What’s to stop it from happening the next time the administration needs a goal secured, a policy or procedure protected, that goes against our interests as students?
The Cornell University Police Department serves the interests of the Cornell community as they are defined in relation to the interests of the administration that governs it. In general these aims are in line with what most of us would consider making a safe campus. But that same administrative control puts CUPD’s interests outside of our own. We can’t (nor should we) get rid of the police, but when someone else can make the calls, it pays to be informed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s