By Michael Ferraresi
GCU News Bureau
In more than 22 years with the Phoenix Police Department, Sgt. Kenny Laird worked nearly every type of assignment except piloting a helicopter or riding a patrol horse.
Laird investigated cold-case homicides. He served as a school resource officer. His most recent role as a supervisor at Cactus Park Precinct helped him understand the area around Grand Canyon University as he worked with neighborhood leaders through a federally funded “weed and seed” program to curb crime and blight.
The GCU alumnus said it was far from an easy decision to leave Phoenix Police to join his alma mater full-time as assistant public safety director. Years ago, it might have seemed out of the question for a longtime cop at a department in the fifth-largest city in the U.S. to shift over to the small campus force at a private, Christian university. But after Columbine, Virginia Tech, Newtown and other campus shootings, university security is now considered an integral area of law enforcement where police officers can enhance professional standards.
Laird, 43, opted out of a state deferred-retirement benefits program to come to GCU on a full-time basis nearly three years earlier than he anticipated.
“The growth (of GCU) is so enormous, I took it as a challenge,” said Laird, who since March has been dually working full-time jobs at the University and as a neighborhood-enforcement team leader for Phoenix Police. He retires from the police department on May 3 to focus on GCU exclusively.
By this fall, GCU will have more than 8,000 students on the ground campus. It will open new office facilities along 27th Avenue, unveil an upgraded Student Union and shepherd students into two new residence halls. Additionally, the University public safety office in Phoenix will be responsible for establishing security at satellite sites as far away as New Mexico and California.
“We have to be smarter about how we use our resources and asking for resources when we need them,” Laird said.
Since 2010, Laird worked with GCU to create a substation for Phoenix officers to use in between emergency calls. Last year, he helped establish a collaborative public-safety partnership between GCU and Phoenix police in which the University agreed to provide $100,000 annually to cover police overtime to enhance security around campus through the GCU Neighborhood Safety Initiative.
The NSI program dovetailed off the federally funded Canyon Corridor Weed and Seed program, which, in Laird's time at the police department, helped reduce residents' fear of crime in the dense urban area through efforts like gun-buyback programs and crime-suppression sweeps.
Laird said he entertained public safety job offers at other major universities, though GCU’s students stand out as some of the more respectful he could remember meeting. Move-in week, for example, tends to run smoother than it might at other schools because of students’ consideration for the campus and their peers.
“The quality of the students we’re getting from Arizona and beyond is incredible,” Laird said. “It creates just a great sense of pride coming into the school.”
GCU’s campus public safety office grew over the past few years from a humble staff of about 10 staffers to nearly 60. Officers assigned to patrol campus have worked for municipal departments in Flagstaff, Youngtown and elsewhere in Arizona.
By this summer, Public Safety Director Henry Griffin expects to hire more officers, including those who will be trained to carry .40 caliber handguns on campus. Currently, there are about 10 officers certified to use handguns on duty to prevent threats with potentially lethal force. Others will be trained and certified in the near future, Laird said.
Part of that emergency preparedness process means educating faculty and staff. GCU college deans and full-time faculty were introduced by Laird earlier this month to a Homeland Security-funded video titled “Run. Hide. Fight. Surviving an Active Shooter Event.” The five-minute provides simple tips for people to follow in the event of a tragedy like the Virginia Tech massacre. (Click here to view the video, which portrays an active shooter situation and is somewhat graphic in nature.)
Both Griffin and Laird said the possibility of violent crime is something school communities must come to terms with and prepare to prevent.
As many as 13 shootings either on or near U.S. college campuses have already been reported in 2013, according to national media reports. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology officer was fatally shot in the line of duty in the aftermath of this month’s Boston bombing tragedy. Last year, seven people died in a shooting at a small Christian university in Oakland, Calif. The incidents are sadly becoming part of American life.
“You can’t respond to something like that with a can of pepper spray or a Taser,” said Griffin, who served with Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office before joining GCU.
Griffin said bringing Laird on board made sense because of the sergeant’s law enforcement background and familiarity with GCU. Laird graduated with a business degree in the mid-1990s, when GCU was still a quiet little campus on the outskirts of central Phoenix.
“Having been a student here, having been here on a part-time basis to kind of see our concept, that will make it a lot easier for him to move in and be successful,” Griffin said.
In addition to studying business at GCU, Laird also volunteered as an assistant soccer coach years ago under longtime Antelopes men’s team coach Petar Draksin.
Laird should fit in just fine on campus, according to the coach. As an Arizona native and father of four, including two sons who play collegiate soccer, Laird has a strong sense of how to work with a range of people
“One thing he knows is the culture of GCU,” Draksin said.
Contact Michael Ferraresi at 639.7030 or [email protected].