Three USF freshmen sit on the sidewalk outside of Fromm residence hall on a lazy Friday evening. They share a set of headphones and a pack of cigarettes, casually juggling a joint between them, its glowing, pungent end fading quickly.
When glaring headlights illuminate the adjacent street corner, they use the rubber soles of their sneakers to stomp out the marijuana and hastily discard the Marlboro butts. But the patrol car has already caught them in the act. As the vehicle approaches slowly, they can’t tell if it belongs to USF Public Safety, or the San Francisco Police Department. They can’t decide who they should be more afraid of.
This was the case of former USF student Taylor Ingle, who was later charged and punished with being in the presence of marijuana consumption. “Honestly, I can never tell, especially when it’s late at night, if it’s SFPD or Public Safety on campus. Like you can’t distinguish unless they’re right next to you, or they’re directly speaking to you,” Ingle said.
The University of San Francisco has a complex relationship with the San Francisco Police Department. All student offenses are handled by the Office of Conduct Code, Rights, and Responsibilities (OSCRR), regardless of whether or not they are illegal, and most cases are not reported to SFPD. Due to this relationship, USF students consider OSCRR and Public Safety to be stricter than SFPD.
Jenna Recupero, assistant director for OSCRR, has been working in the office for seven years, managing second time offenses, all drug offenses, and, until the Fall 2014 semester, sexual assault cases. She described USF’s agreement with SFPD.
“We have what is called a Memorandum of Understanding, or an MOU, with SFPD. We are not required to report to the police, we try to keep it all in-house and private,” she said. Ultimately there is a collaborative element to the relationship, in that SFPD directs USF offenders towards Public Safety, and that USF sends its more extreme cases to SFPD. The memorandum exists to properly educate students on their mistakes without having to put a strain on SFPD’s limited resources.
Captain Simon Silverman of the Richmond District SFPD Station believes that USF is capable of handling minor offenses on campus, and prefers it that way. “Quite honestly, it doesn’t make sense for us to spend time and resources when USF Public Safety can often get compliance because people don’t want to get in trouble at the university level,” he said. More serious offenses are worthy of police intervention, however. “We’re not necessarily going to stand down and not pursue a serious case in favor of the university. This would only be in favor of minor, petty cases,” Silverman said.
One anonymous sophomore represents one of these minor cases. During her first experimental weeks on campus, she branched out to meet new friends in another residence hall, but ran into Public Safety. “These RA’s from a different floor are knocking, and they bring Public Safety,” she said, “They were like, ‘Put the alcohol in the middle of the room, we’re going to get all of your names.’ And then we had to talk to them and they were, like, saying how we were going to be basically documented and we were really panicking.” Her case was handled exclusively through USF. After speaking to a residence director about the consequences of her actions, she only had to attend a decision-making workshop on campus provided by OSCRR.
Though USF prefers to keep a majority of its cases in-house, it recognizes that some instances are worthy of police intervention. “We have the ability to report felony-level cases, such as selling drugs that would reach that felony-level status, or anything along those lines,” said Director of the OSCRR Ryan Garcia.
Although USF punishes its own students for minor offenses, Public Safety is less constitutional in its processes than SFPD. On the topic of warrants and room searches, Director of Public Safety and former SFPD captain Dan Lawson said, “We’ll go ahead, and we get a warrant generally.”
Lawson added that room searches only take place if there is visible evidence that a student is partaking in criminal activity, which would prompt Public Safety to request a warrant from members of SHaRE (Student Housing and Residential Education), and the on-call supervisor or administrator of student life. Students are subject to these searches after signing their housing contract before moving in.
Public Safety and OSCRR also act outside of standard legal procedure in calling the parents of non-minor students after several offenses. “It has to be fairly serious, where we’re really concerned about the health of the student in particular. [The parents] will be contacted if we think the student is suicidal, that is engaged in the use of drugs to the point where it could be adverse to their health,” Lawson said.
As a private institution, USF is not subject to the same legal standards as SFPD or any other public entity. Silverman commented on the differences in their practices: “I’m guessing that the university’s standard of proof [the evidence required to deem a student guilty] is probably different than ours. It’s probably a preponderance of evidence, which is even lower than what is required for an [SFPD] arrest. We’re bound by all the constitutional rules of search and seizure,” said Silverman.
A student, who prefers to remain anonymous, as his case is ongoing, was charged for possession of a fake I.D. after his belongings were searched although he was not present. “They asked if they could come in initially and then my roommate let them in, and then once they were let in they realized that they had reason to search. I think there was like a beer out or something along those lines. And then once they see one thing, they have permission to search the whole place,” he said, “I don’t think I should have gotten anything. They shouldn’t have been able to go through my stuff without me there. But they did.” After the search, Public Safety found false identification in his belongings, and he was charged with possession of a fake I.D.
Lawson responded to this student’s case, addressing the concept of searching without a warrant or consent from the resident. “I’m not aware of any incident where we walk into a room without a warrant and just search the entire room without the permission of the person in that room. If somebody gives us permission to do it, that’s a different story,” he said. All areas that Public Safety officers consider to be a common space, such as this anonymous student’s desk, are liable for search after one roommate allows them entry.
Recupero said that, by keeping these cases in-house, OSCRR is actually working in favor of the students. “We’re trying to help and educate our students as much as possible before they get into a situation where it could impact their future, truly impact they’re future, because they’re arrested for something. I think it’s always worse when it’s on your permanent record,” she said.
Students who live off campus, but are still within USF Public Safety parameters, are also subject to Public Safety intervention for Conduct Code offenses. USF graduate Alec Kaplan had several run-ins with Public Safety outside of his off campus apartment during his time at the University. “I have been caught off campus multiple times: the first four were for parties at my house, and were because we lived in the USF radius and Public Safety came and they were pretty angry. They were much more angry than SFPD. Of my five interactions with them, they’ve handcuffed me three of the five times, which was fun,” he said.
Kaplan commented that Public Safety was more persistent in their investigation than SFPD, although they are not entitled to search an off-campus premises. “They really wanted my school information, more than anything else. I think they were ready to get me in trouble rather than wanting to fix the situation. I don’t think Public Safety should have anything to do with off campus housing. Totally not fair.” After his various off-campus offenses, Kaplan says that the only repercussions he had to face were attending several meetings in OSCRR.
Still, other students agree that Public Safety and the motives of the university are more threatening than SFPD. The anonymous student, who has also been approached by SFPD for smoking marijuana and drinking in the Panhandle, agrees that Public Safety is much stricter than SFPD on college students. “We’ve been approached by SFPD before in the park. Like actually I wasn’t even drinking or smoking. But my friends were, and you could see that. They were just like ‘Hey, you shouldn’t be in the park right now.’ You know they knew that we were doing that. So I feel like SF police are rather chill about things,” she said.
Countering the popular opinion, Recupero said, “I feel that overall I know a lot of students don’t feel that it’s fair to be documented, but ultimately we’re willing to help our students to grow as adults and to know what boundaries and limitations look like.”
*Editor’s note: Taylor Ingle transferred to Monterey Peninsula College for reasons unrelated to her interaction with Public Safety.