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CMU Police Department celebrates 50 years of service

2019 marks 50 years since university's first public safety department


From Left to Right: Jason VanConant, Detective; Mike Morrow, Lieutenant; Laura Martinez, Officer; Zach Ferrier, Sergeant; Megan Anderson, Parking Services Specialist; Scott Malloy, Officer; Stephanie Williams, Business Operations Manager; Cameron Wassman, Lieutenant

In 1969, man first stepped foot on the moon, music-lovers flocked to New York for the first Woodstock festival, and hundreds of thousands across the country protested the Vietnam War. The year also marked an important feat for Central Michigan University: The creation of the university's first-ever police department.  

As police agencies around the country began beefing up their forces in response to the ongoing riots and protests, CMU unified its own law enforcement with the official formation of a police department to service the university around the clock.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the CMU Police Department, which first began in 1969 as a department of public safety.

Public Safety Department

The department's formation marked the first 24-hour patrol agency on CMU’s campus – prior to that, the university’s only law enforcement agency, “Campus Security,” did not patrol campus from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. Instead, the agency used “watchmen” during those hours, who did not have power of arrest and could only call Mount Pleasant police during emergencies. 

The name change from "Campus Security" to "Public Safety Department" was a response to rising tensions between CMU students and security personnel, according to Central Michigan Life archives. 

After visiting CMU's campus, Richard Bernitt, who was director of Michigan State University's Department of Public Safety at the time, suggested that the department's name be changed to “take away the police connotation.”

“Bernitt suggested the new title because the old title of Campus Security had a ‘police connotation,’” wrote a Central Michigan Life reporter on Sept. 10, 1969. “Bernitt held that the connotation was not well accepted by many campus citizens.”

John McAuliffe, a CMU graduate, was the first appointed director of the public safety department. Under McAuliffe's leadership, the department hired three new police officers in 1969, bringing the staff to seven. 

That year, the police department also commissioned its very own ambulance. The department used a station wagon, which, in addition to conducting patrols, also served as an ambulance that could transport people to the hospital in a timely manner. The vehicle was equipped with a radio, stretcher and lights.

“It takes too long in an emergency to wait for the hospital to send its ambulance,” McAuliffe told CM Life on Sept. 22, 1969. “No one has died because of this wait before, but it would be a very sad day if this were to happen.”

In 1976, the department of public safety hired its first female police officer. Officer Janice Klein, hired on Aug. 16 at age 21, told CM Life that while some people were surprised that she went into police work as a woman, most people "accepted her for what she was."

CMUPD had its first K-9 unit in 1998 with K-9 Officer Lizzy, who was accompanied by Officer Leo Mioduszewski. The drug-sniffing dog was trained to only obey commands in Dutch, Mioduszewski told CM Life. Although CMU police don't currently have a K-9 unit, recently-appointed Chief Larry Klaus said he may consider implementing it during his time as chief. 

That year also marked CMUPD's first bike patrol unit, which allowed police to get around areas of campus that aren't accessible by patrol vehicles. Today, there are six certified officers who patrol campus on wheels

As the police department celebrates its 50th year of operation this month, CMUPD Chief Larry Klaus, Lt. Cameron Wassman and Officer Chris Pryor – who has been with CMUPD for 23 years and has done extensive research on the department's history – sat down with CM Life Oct. 3 to reflect on the department's history and how CMUPD has evolved over the past five decades. 

Evolution of policing methods

Over the last decade, CMUPD has evolved its policing methods from reactive enforcement to more of a proactive approach to respond to CMU's "party culture." 

In the past, Pryor said police simply focused on reacting to any rowdiness going on around campus. For example, most of CMUPD’s Welcome Weekend policing consisted of patrolling campus throughout the weekend and handling parties as they would arise.  

“Back then it was very reactive,” Pryor said. “You’d gear up, and then you’d come home and you’re tired because you’d just been dealing with fights and drunk individuals all night.” 

But over the years, CMU police have begun to take on a more proactive approach to campus law enforcement by focusing on education. Now, police spend the days before Welcome Weekend knocking on doors around campus to educate students about the city’s ordinances, so they know not to break any rules. 

And the difference is noticeable – Welcome Weekend law violations have dropped steadily over the last three years alone. Altogether, police only made 72 arrests or written citations from Thursday, Aug. 22 to Sunday, Aug. 25 during this year’ Welcome Weekend. That number compares to the 344 citations that were issued during Welcome Weekend 2016.

“Now, you walk around campus and you hear crickets,” Pryor said. “It’s real different.”

Along with changing law enforcement strategies, police have also had to evolve with changing technology over the past few decades. From the evolution of telephones to the invention and popularization of computers, policing looks a lot different now than it did in 1969.

Pryor said when he started with CMUPD two decades ago, harassment consisted of students picking up the old "brown phones" in dorm rooms and calling someone repeatedly. Now, harassment has become much more complex through texting and social media, making some cases much harder to crack.

Today, CMUPD is using forensics technology that would've been unimaginable decades ago  – such as Det. Jason VanConant, who was trained by the U.S. Secret Service to hack cell phones even if they are locked by a passcode.

Patrol cars have also come a long way since CMUPD's station wagon ambulance that was introduced in 1969.

“With respect to the cars, when I started all we had was lights, siren and a radio,” he said. “Now, we’ve got computer and video systems. It’s so much more streamlined.”

The evolution of technology has also allowed for better communication between the five area law enforcement agencies – CMUPD, Mount Pleasant Police Department, Isabella County Sheriff’s Office, Michigan State Police and Saginaw Chippewa Tribal Police Department. 

“In the past, we could’ve been dealing with somebody that the county sheriff’s office was also dealing with, and nobody knew it,” he said. “It was all word-of-mouth. Now, the information exchange between the entire state, and country, has really improved.”

Better student/police relationships

With evolving policing methods, CMUPD has seen the relationship between police and students improve over the decades since the department’s formation. 

“Based on my readings, the police kind of got beat up 50 years ago,” Pryor said. “Students didn’t like (police), I don’t think police treated (students) how they should’ve and I think a lot of that has changed. Policing was done a lot different 50 years ago.”

Pryor recalled that during his first years of service with CMUPD, many students came to the university with negative attitudes toward law enforcement because of their interactions with police in their hometown.

“I remember just having to break down those walls,” he said. “But a lot of that is gone, I think.”

Klaus said he believes the relationship between CMU police and students has always been better compared to national tensions involving police. He remembered attending an event last year with Officer Laura Martinez in the Towers residential halls, where they addressed a group of male students. 

Several of the students stood up and told the officers that they distrust police, Klaus said. However, he remembered how the students told Martinez that although they hated police, they loved her, and they gave her a hug. 

“When we see a student who hugs Officer Martinez and says, ‘We hate the police but we love her,’ that’s all we can ask,” Klaus said. “So that’s some of the barriers that we, as campus police, are able to bring down.

“The experience with law enforcement that someone brings here may not be the best, but at least we’re giving them a different viewpoint.”

National spotlight: CMUPD's biggest cases

Mount Pleasant is usually a pretty quiet town.

"We’ve been pretty fortunate in our environment that we don’t have significant events happening all the time," Wassman said.

But every now and then, CMU police investigate cases that have drawn national attention.

One of the most recent incidents at CMU that were brought into the national spotlight was the Campbell Hall shooting that took place March 2, 2018. 

That day, former CMU student James Eric Davis Jr. shot and killed his parents, James Eric Davis Sr. and Diva Davis, on the fourth floor of the Towers residential hall. The incident received coverage by national news outlets, including the New York Times and CNN.

But despite being under a national microscope, Klaus said he's never been more proud of CMUPD than he was of the department's work on that tragic day.

"We train our officers to address acts of violence, and they did exactly as trained to keep our students safe," he said. "They didn’t know what was going on, but they went in on March 2 as they were trained to stop acts of violence."

Wassman agreed that although the March 2 shooting was the biggest case CMUPD has handled, it showed that the department is capable of handling any case – big or small.

"That was clearly the largest operation that we’ve been involved in," Wassman said. "Everybody in our department stepped up and brought their A-game."

But three decades ago, CMU police were accustomed to dealing with nationally known incidents thanks to one annual event in particular: the “End of the World” party.

The annual party took place after final exams every year to mark the end of the spring semester, drawing hundreds of students to a six-block area of the city near the northern end of campus. 

The year-end parties in the '80s and '90s were often characterized by students throwing bricks, beer bottles and stones at police and residents. Resulting in hundreds of student arrests, the events attracted the spotlight of national news outlets such as the Associated Press and New York Times.

In 1986, CMU police notably hammered down on the annual rowdiness by responding with increased police presence. According to a May 14, 1986 CM Life archive, CMU police vowed to clamp down on the parties with a temporary restraining order, which declared Main Street off-limits to all non-residents. There were 110 officers on duty that night to enforce the restrictions.

That night, 76 students were arrested, according to CM Life archives. The New York Times reported that most of the arrests were for crossing police lines or stealing police barricades. 

CMU Police Department today 

Although the name of the department has evolved over the years, the level of service provided by CMUPD has not. Today, the university police department employs 25 sworn officers and 12 employees to service the campus community. 

Wassman believes what makes CMUPD different from other police agencies is the way it interacts with the university community. 

"Sometimes it might be enforcement, sometimes it's an educational thing, but regardless, by being able to have those interactions, we could be possibly changing somebody’s life," he said. "By keeping them safe, by educating them on how to keep themselves safe, to take a drunk driver off the road. 

"You may not have those opportunities if you were working at an agency in a big city, but we all have those opportunities here."

At an Oct. 15 open house celebrating the department's anniversary, Stanley Dinius, who served CMUPD for over 12 years, said university police have a unique opportunity to impact CMU students.

"They aren't here just to throw kids in jail, they're here to help with the education process," he said.