On the beat: Ride along with FAMU’s finest

It’s 9 p.m. on a Wednesday. Officer Dexter Roberson has spent six hours patrolling Florida A&M University’s campus. He has two hours remaining on his shift. He peruses an activity sheet of campus events.                                              

There’s an intramural basketball game in the gym at FAMU’s Developmental Research School, with no security. He decides to go check it out.  Heading to the gym to “make sure everyone is orderly,” he hops in his patrol car, not putting on his seatbelt because it catches his neck when he responds to emergencies.

“I like to ride the whole campus,” Roberson said. “I like to get out (of my car) and see what’s going on.”

Roberson parks in the field behind DRS; he stands on the perimeter of the basketball court and watches.  Besides charging violations everything is calm, so Roberson heads to patrol another part of campus.

Roberson is one of 30 officers sworn in at the FAMU Police Department who pride themselves on maintaining a safe atmosphere for students looking to gain an education in peace.

According to James Lockley Jr., assistant chief of police, FAMUPD patrols the campus in three different shifts with six-seven officers per shift if possible. 

“Visibility is deterrence,” Lockley said.

He said officers foot patrolling and riding in their cars lets deviants know “you can’t do anything on this campus.

Patrolling FAMU’s Mean Streets

FAMU’s campus is patrolled in zones. Lt. Norman Rollins said an “imaginary line” is drawn through campus to distinguish each officer’s patrol zone while working. He said any given night the campus can split just into an East and West zone or be broken down to individual sections such as the Palmetto area.

But Rollins said that information is not disclosed to the public to ensure the advantage of campus safety stays with FAMUPD. “We don’t want to give the common criminal the upper-hand,” he said.  

But tonight Roberson is not assigned to a zone, so he spends his shift randomly patrolling areas.  

9:23 p.m. – Roberson heads to Lee Hall as an event lets out. He positions himself on the lawn adjacent to Jones Hall overlooking the parking lot between Lee Hall and the female dormitories. 

“People don’t think we pay attention,” Roberson said.

He follows the direction of the crowd as they head to their cars. He said officers try to push everybody outside toward their cars to avoid fights. But Roberson’s attention quickly turns to the Pharmacy Building as he is called to respond to an alarm.

Roberson said FAMUPD must check every door of a building when responding to alarms. He spots a white van behind the building and runs its tag. With eight priors it’s assumed to be a student or a professor. 

Roberson said officers spend a lot of their time responding to alarms across campus. The majority of tripped alarms come from pharmacy and the School of Journalism & Graphic Communication. But the constant response helped the department thwart a recent theft of projectors at the school, so he said it’s worth the time to check out. 

9:48 p.m. – Time to check Palmetto. Roberson likes to check the Palmetto area at least three times a day and Gibbs Hall and Paddyfote at least twice. He said these have been problem areas in the past.  

“It holds true, dorms are problems,” Lockley said. Both Lockley and Roberson said the Grey Gore Complex in between the female dorms is a major concern because if a male student gets in after dark he has access to all the female dormitories. So Roberson checks each door of the complex making sure it is shut and locked. 

Lockley said officers have been able to spot problem areas and adjust security measures accordingly. Though he wouldn’t disclose present areas of criminal activity, Lockley said these areas are constantly staked out. 

“Being familiar with the campus is a part of being a university officer,” Lockley said.

In addition to “problem areas,” Lockley said events “deemed tradition” spark the attention of officers. He pointed out that every Halloween students have been known to throw eggs on campus.

9:54 p.m. – Roberson’s task in the Palmettos is escorting a Hungry Howie’s driver. He said there was a time when delivery drivers were being robbed, so he ensures a safe delivery.

But to properly protect students living on campus, officers enlist the help of resident assistants and directors. 

9:58 p.m. – Roberson walks the halls of Phase 3. He breathes in, “Ahh, see no weed.” But three years ago Roberson said that wasn’t the norm. But “it’s tricky” to patrol the dorms, he said. 

Lockley said officers cannot search dorm rooms without warrants, but resident assistants can. He said a lot of crimes are stopped because of the help of the RAs. Housing can do health and welfare searches randomly. Sometimes they find marijuana or other illegal substances, he said. Then they inform FAMUPD, who come to confiscate the items.                                                          

Student-Officer Relationship                                                                                    10:10 p.m. – Roberson is called to aid in towing an illegally parked vehicle in the McGuinn Hall parking lot. He walks past a gazebo full of gentlemen, but he doesn’t smell smoke and doesn’t sense any illegal activity. So he keeps walking.

“I wouldn’t want any police harassing me at my home,” Roberson said. He said his outlook on patrolling campus is allowing the students to relax since this is their “home.”  

But according to Lt. Angela Kirkland, “We don’t want students to think we’re their big sisters or big brothers.”

Kirkland said the relationship should be professional, yet students should feel comfortable when officers are present.  “If a person is walking at four in the morning, we want our officers to dialogue with that person just in case the person needs assistance,” Kirkland said.

She said sometimes officers have information that students don’t and a comfortable relationship makes it easier for officers to protect the campus. 

Lockley said the student element is the only thing different from other police agencies. He said for some students this is their first time away from home and as his mother used to say, “They’re smelling their musk thinking they’re grown.”

But he said, “kids are going to be kids,” and for this reason FAMUPD believes in giving second chances.

“My goal is not to introduce our kids to the criminal justice system,” Lockley said. 

He said FAMUPD uses different avenues besides jail, such as sending students to Judicial Affairs. Judicial Affairs is a part of the University.

When students are sent there, they are judged by the University’s code of conduct and either fined, suspended or expelled. But Lockley said there is no criminal record.      

The student-side of the relationship harbors mixed feelings about FAMUPD’s performance. Zacchaeus Banks, 19, said on a scale of 1 to 5 he gives them a 2.5 rating.   

“(FAMUPD security) is OK but it should be better,” said the nursing student from Quincy.

He said the department needs more security during the nighttime. Banks lives in Paddyfote. 

But Devyreau Garrett, 18, has had a different experience with the officers. Garrett, who lives in McGuinn, said she sees the officers constantly and they are friendly.

“They’ve been good from what I’ve seen,” said the freshman psychology student from Houston. She said the officers have a quick response time at her dormitory. 

Lockley said the department needs more officers to be more proactive rather than reactive. He said roadblocks to check whether people on campus are actually students would deter criminal activity, but more officers are needed for these measures. He said FAMUPD asks for students to call and give their suggestions to improve campus safety. 

It’s 11 p.m. Roberson heads back to the police station and logs out. He said he wishes the campus didn’t need cops, even though that would mean he’d be unemployed. But as long as he’s working he will ensure “the people who do want an education can get it peacefully.”