Story by Bob Romantic
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU News Bureau
Of all the new facilities and amenities that greeted students when they returned to Grand Canyon University for the 2016-17 school year — new restaurants, a Student Life Building, three more apartment-style residence halls, GCU Stadium, an enormous Engineering Building, etc. — here’s one they probably didn’t notice:
GCU now has its own independent police department.
The Arizona Legislature passed a bill in May granting private post-secondary institutions the ability to appoint peace officers in the protection of their campus, employees, students and faculty. GCU is in the process of certifying 25 officers with the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training (AZPOST) as part of its 177-member police force.
What does it mean to go from a Public Safety Department to a full-fledged GCU Police Department?
“Two things, primarily,” said Kenny Laird, police chief of the GCU Police Department. “First, this will make our campus — which already has some of the lowest crime rates in the country — even safer. That’s important to families. Second, as the University continues its rapid growth, this will allow the Phoenix Police Department to focus more on the surrounding neighborhood, which is also an important initiative for the University.”
As a Public Safety Department, Laird said, GCU would call the Phoenix P.D. to respond to any incidents that occurred on campus. Now, as a Police Department, certified GCU police officers have the authority to handle those interviews and investigations themselves, which benefits students with improved response times.
“This means one less thing on their plate,” Laird said of Phoenix P.D. “They serve 188,000 residents in the Cactus Park Precinct, according to the most recent U.S. Census data. Add to that the 20,000 to 30,000 people we have coming to campus every day, plus the people coming to GCU for events, and that’s a lot of ground for them to cover.”
GCU is in the midst of a five-year, $1 million partnership with the Phoenix Police Department to reduce crime in the areas surrounding the University — between Interstate 17 and 43rd Avenue and from Bethany Home to Indian School roads. The Neighborhood Safety Initiative pays for overtime hours of Phoenix police officers each week to not only combat crime but also deal with bigger problems ranging from poverty and homelessness to gangs and drugs.
Creating an independent police department for a private university is a first in Arizona, primarily because the state did not have much of a history of private education before GCU burst onto the scene. It’s common in other states, where private schools such as Yale, Notre Dame, BYU, Baylor, Liberty, Tulane, Northwestern and SMU all have certified police departments. Arizona’s three public universities — Arizona State, Arizona and Northern Arizona — all have independent police forces.
GCU President Brian Mueller said the University invests nearly $8 million a year in public safety.
“It’s very important to us. Families entrust their sons and daughters to us, and we take that very seriously,” he said. “Having our own police force in place is another way to ensure the safest possible environment for our students.”
Laird, who has 21 years of experience with the Phoenix Police Department, joined GCU full-time in 2013 as its associate director of public safety. He was promoted to police chief with the formation of the GCU Police Department.
“It just makes sense for us to have our own certified police force on campus,” Laird said. “We’ll continue to maintain a relationship with Phoenix P.D. but within 3-6 months should transition to full ownership of campus law enforcement responsibilities. This has had overwhelming support from Phoenix P.D., the Arizona Department of Public Safety and the Phoenix City Council as well as state lawmakers and the people in our neighborhood.”
Many security measures will remain unchanged with the GCU Police Department. Security patrols always have been a common sight throughout campus. Beyond that, Laird said there is a multi-layered approach to security that includes an eight-foot fence surrounding the University, guard stations at every entrance, identification checks before entering campus, bag checks at GCU Arena events, blue light phones throughout campus to report emergencies, tip lines, emergency text notifications, escort programs, 24/7 dispatch services and training for active-shooter scenarios.
In addition, GCU is a dry campus, which eliminates many of the issues that are prevalent at other universities. Alcohol abuse is a leading cause of accident-related deaths, assaults and mental health issues among college students.
Last year, GCU’s security force was recognized by the National Campus Safety Summit on its list of “Top 25 University Departments” that are making a difference in student safety. GCU was ranked No. 14.
“We correspond with literally thousands of security people around the U.S. and work together on issues regarding college policing,” Laird said. “We’ve gotten to a point where others are looking to us to see what we do and utilize our ideas.”
GCU’s certified police officers will receive the same training as officers from city or county police agencies in Arizona, including background checks, polygraphs, psychological evaluations, physical tests and proficiency tests on firearms, Arizona laws and other procedural matters.
“Unfortunately, in today’s world of increased terrorism, the need for highly trained public safety officers only increases,” Laird said. “The training at AZPOST gives our officers all the tools and experience necessary to protect human life and institutional property.”