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August 11, 2012 4:38 PM   Subscribe

Help me get my head on straight regarding a recent suspicious activity report we submitted and the police visit that resulted.

I work as an MRI tech at a public university. An MR scanner is a hazardous piece of equipment and it sits behind several limited-access doors.

A few days ago I was coming back to the office when I saw someone standing outside. Lots of students and community members visit our building daily to volunteer in paid research. We only have a part-time receptionist, so we keep the front door locked and rely on researchers to let their volunteers in.

I let the guy in and noticed that he looked a little older than a typical undergrad. He had messy hair, wore cargo shorts and thick-rimmed glasses, and carried a clipboard. I asked him what he was looking for. He said that he came from the graduate student government and was raising awareness of unionization. I said that we don't have any grad students in our building. Seeming a little confused, he gave me his card, got a drink of water, and saw himself out. This apparently wasn't his first appearance in our building, so our manager called it in to the non-emergency campus police number.

The officer campus police immediately dispatched had a gun and said that he carried at least ten pounds of extra ammo. He also boasted about the protective vest he was wearing under his shirt. He made our reception area his HQ and wasted at least two hours of our time, not to mention upsetting volunteers (including families with young children) with his appearance.

He delivered to us a lecture that began with "Now, this individual hasn't committed a real crime yet…" and went on to talk about terrorists from PETA who have "a corporate structure." I objected that the guy on the business card was a well-known union organizer and gadfly whose name was all over articles in the campus paper and student government meeting minutes. The officer all but laughed in my face at my temerity to believe that this guy might not be misrepresenting himself. The officer apparently departed from the assumption that this guy was a threat, operating incognito and meaning to cause us indefinite harm.

Upon reaching the local branch of the union the guy purported to represent, he was told that yes, this guy was indeed a field rep. The officer demanded to meet with him in order to have "a conversation." In the end, he declared to us that he had reason to believe that the guy was harmless, but that we absolutely must be vigilant about who we let into our building, and that any visitor could potentially mean us harm. Then he began telling us that he'd been a TSA officer for years and that he's "seen it all." Then he finally left.

To be honest, this incident makes me less likely to report anything to campus police. I've had acquaintances who were involved in grass-roots activism (e.g., PIRG), a lot of what they do is as irritating, foolhardy, and unlikely to succeed as what our visitor appeared to be doing. The policy of aggressively pursuing all visitors as potential terrorists really frightens me.

  • Was this incident suspicious enough to be worth reporting?
  • What sorts of incidents should we realistically report in the future? I'm worried that if we report that someone left behind a purse, they'll send a bomb squad.
  • When we report future incidents that are not explicitly criminal, do we need to drop everything and put ourselves at the beck and call of the officer, or should we expect and request that the officer minimize his impact on our activity? This time pretty much everything came to a standstill while he investigated this completely innocuous incident.
  • How do I form a better relationship with campus police? Ride-alongs? A visit to the department?
posted by Nomyte to Law & Government (21 answers total)
I can't answer your questions specifically, but I wouldn't attribute to campus police in general the attitudes of one particular officer who kind of generally sounds like a twit. Rather than considering altering your behavior with regard to campus police, my first thought would probably be to submit a complaint about the officer's behavior to his superiors. I'm not sure I'd assume at all that the overall attitude is to treat all visitors like potential terrorists... it's just that any kind of law enforcement role can attract certain people who don't really belong in the role. I'd say there's a good chance that there's a reason this guy doesn't work for TSA right now, but that I've had some very good interactions with campus police at my own schools that were sane and sensible and not at all like this.
posted by gracedissolved at 4:47 PM on August 11, 2012 [19 favorites]

that campus cop was on a power trip and totally out of line. this askme would be a great start for a letter to the head of campus security - you should be able to report non-emergencies without triggering a campus lock-down. 2 hours is completely absurd. it was reasonable to report that somewhat suspicious occurrence, and it was a responsible thing to do, too. if there were really something nefarious afoot, seemingly tiny datapoints could add up to a significant pattern. you don't need to change your behavior - "hey, we had a stranger poking around" is a completely legitimate (non-)report - campus security needs to learn what proportionality means. there's no way i would let this go, i would make a beef to the chief.
posted by facetious at 4:49 PM on August 11, 2012 [19 favorites]

Report this idiot to his supervisor. Send a report, just like you wrote here.

Due to recent violent attacks, some of the security people are a bit on edge. This was over-much and inappropriate.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 4:51 PM on August 11, 2012 [8 favorites]

You just described every second union organizer I ever worked with (former union organizer here). Your police officer sounds like trouble, a little unhinged and like he's spoiling for a fight. I would be creeped out if I were you. In your shoes I think I would only call in future if you felt there was a threat to safety or a risk of property loss or damage, but that's your or perhaps your manager's call to make.

As an aside, your institution might be heading for some kind of labor charge down the road. It depends on your situation with the union, but in every case workers have the right to organize, discuss a union etc, and in many cases union representatives or staff have the right to access work areas and speak with staff. I don't imagine you'll personally get in trouble, but your manager might. If I were them I would check in with labor relations. Calling security on union organizers is often perceived as a deliberate and hostile act again the organization and worker's rights.
posted by crabintheocean at 4:53 PM on August 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

Was this incident suspicious enough to be worth reporting?

Yes. I'm sorry that the official response you received was "WAR ON TERROR HUT HUT AT-TEN-TIOOOONNNNN!".

However, an out-of-place-looking person with a clipboard and a vague reason for being in a potentially sensitive area (at least twice) generally smells like social engineering to get places said person should not be.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 4:55 PM on August 11, 2012 [10 favorites]

This guy sounds like he got onto a bit of a silly power trip, but that doesn't mean that there may not be a genuine threat of dangerous action by animal rights groups of some kind. It's possible that this cop knows oof specific threats that have been made to people who work in your building and that was part of what was driving his trigger-happy response.

In any case, somebody showing up more than once asking for access to your building when they have no legitimate purpose there and have presumably had that explained to them in the past seems like it clears the bar of being a legitimate reason to call the campus police. We can only hope that not all the officers there will respond in such a gung ho way.

Asking if it is possible to go on a ride-along with your campus cops sounds like a good idea. It might also be worth checking if they have a public liason officer you could speak to about this incident. Let them know that you found this officer's actions and attitude overbearing and ask if they could explain to you both what his understanding of the incident was (you never know what you might discover when you try to see things from the other guy's p.o.v) and also ask if they can give you some pointers about how you might make any future incident less disruptive and distressing.
posted by yoink at 4:59 PM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

The cop sounds a little unhinged, and should be reported.

The last thing a campus officer should be doing is making anyone feel uncomfortable, unsafe, or annoyed. Sounds like he did all three.

If you want to build a better repoir (sp?) with your campus police, ask for a meeting with a hire up to ask him the rest of these questions directly, and let them know you're appreciative of their efforts. This officer's boss will likely appreciate the feedback, and that you're reaching out to them and not just painting all campus police as weirdos who couldn't get a job with the city PD.
posted by Unsomnambulist at 5:00 PM on August 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

There are some weird-ass campus police officers out there. Certainly, many are good people and do very good work, but the job does tend to attract a share of those who didn't make it in municipal police agencies and/or the power hungry. I've met both and that's with an agency that was pretty good on the whole. Bragging about being an ex-TSA officer who's "seen it all" would seem to sum up his mindset right there.

However, this really seems like an issue for your management to address. If I were a student and had this experience, I might be inclined to raise a bit of attention by talking to someone in student government, the campus paper, the police agency itself, or perhaps dropping a letter to an administrator that oversees the campus police. You're an employee though, and the amount of rabble-rousing that's worth it here is very much related to how much trouble it will end up causing you and/or your boss unnecessary aggravation.

I'd probably try to feel out your manager on his/her feelings about the event first. Depending on how that goes, asking for a nice chat with a supervisor in the campus police to share your experience and ask some questions might be a good way to move forward.
posted by zachlipton at 5:06 PM on August 11, 2012

I'd be far more concerned about the officer with the power trip than someone who is a legitimate organizer. If you do have campus animal rights activists with a record of direct action and there is animal testing of some sort in your building, then I'd imagine it's worth keeping tabs on suspicious characters (not this guy) and documenting repeat characters with the police, but absolutely do take this up with campus security to make sure their response remains reasonable and proportionate.
posted by col_pogo at 5:06 PM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just two things that I'm going to address:

Was this incident suspicious enough to be worth reporting?

I used to work in labs, and unfortunately as you are probably aware, sometimes people don't understand science or even what you are doing and have destroyed years of research or entire labs (these cases and incidents exist, YMMV in terms of precautions). Because the guy had been there before and might have already found out that there were no grad students there, to be safe, yes, report it.

How do I form a better relationship with campus police?

This is what everyone else is already addressing, but in this case, I would absolutely write a polite letter and it would be even better if your manager/someone higher up on the food chain would sign off on it too.

The letter would be very respectful and acknowledge that campus police does great work and that you appreciate that the sent someone to followup.

However, you were very concerned for the following reasons: 1) Announcing that he was carrying 10 lbs of ammo, 2) the fact that he carried his investigation in the demeanor that you describe in front of volunteers with young kids, and 3) seemed to imply that student union members/PETA members are terrorists. You may want to consider that you are not sure if you should campus security in the future because of these actions.

You may be hesitant to send an email like this, but I would because 1) i it should documented that they have their own nutball on staff (and should someone react that in a population of students who are likely to have union leaders, etc etc? ) 2) they really need to train/give PR training to campus police if they are going to remotely respond like this. It is one thing to have an investigation, it is another to not think about how they are presenting themselves to members of the community and/or campus.
posted by Wolfster at 5:08 PM on August 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

An unknown person in a limited access lab area is worth investigating, surely. I used to work in a lab complex, and we had a lot of theft from people who would just wander in looking for unsecured valuables. This could be laptops, scales, cash, anything. There are other security concerns as well, such as safety, which OP mentioned. The problem here is the unprofessional response from the cops. I agree that followup with the Public Safety is called for.
posted by thelonius at 5:15 PM on August 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

Also, as far as your third question goes, it certainly wouldn't have been unreasonable to ask the officer to move his 'HQ' out of the reception area and to designate some other less-public area for him to do his work. It's not like he needed to collect evidence from the reception area or anything. Personally, at some point in the two-hour ordeal, I probably would say something like "I really appreciate all this effort, but we're super-busy here with research, so is there anything else we can tell you?" Then either try to get him to leave or just leave him in some office and go back to work.
posted by zachlipton at 5:17 PM on August 11, 2012

Some clarification:
  • The guy never entered (or made any move to enter) the sensitive area in our building.
  • We have many visitors every day and we do not verify their credentials, unless they have to enter the sensitive area.
  • We do not work with any animals.
  • We have very few staff, so it's extremely unlikely that there is any more to the story (i.e., previous threats).
I'll check for feedback from our manager and try to talk with the police liaison. Several of us had the opinion that the police response was a little disproportionate.
posted by Nomyte at 5:21 PM on August 11, 2012

If someone trips your gut "out of place, weird behavior" detector, you should be able to touch base with campus safety about it, and you should be able to expect a level-headed, serious but not nutso, response. Could be the guy fits into a pattern of weird behavior that the campus cops know about but you don't. It is fine to call them and let them know.

But I agree that they shouldn't have a staff member who's super aggro. Might be worth talking to some higher-up over there about it, filing a note for the guy's file. They can tell him to cool it, or if there are enough similar complaints, it will be grounds for discipline/firing.
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:57 PM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Having gone through an ugly unionisation drive this last year, I'm pretty cynical about the actions of universities in this area. I question whether your manager was trying to obstruct union organising. I don't work in a lab, so maybe phoning the police in this situation is an appropriate amount of paranoia, but it sounds like an overreaction to me. There's a good chance your manager has been getting emails from the adminstration instructing them on how much the law allows them to obstruct organising.

The bloke almost certainly has a list (that the union obtained from the university, I think) telling him there are grad students working in the building. If non-student employees are telling him there aren't, he's going to assume you/they are lying, not that his list is wrong. If the list says Joe Smith has an office in room whatever, you keep going to room whatever until you find Joe Smith (or perhaps until you see someone else's name on the door). Given that you let the bloke in and seemingly saw everything he did in the building, it sounds like your manager is out of line. If he were doing something nefarious, would he have given you his card?

Then there's the problem of the campus police (who may also be trying to obstruct the union) and the nutter of an officer they seem to have. Someone (who should probably be your manager, not you) should likely complain. The guy who came wasted your time, but he (at least in principle) wasted the police's time as well--they surely have something more useful for him to be doing. I don't know that you need particularly to work on your relationship with the campus police. They can't all be absurd caricatures and, if they are, no number of ridealongs are going to stop them from their power trip.
posted by hoyland at 6:11 PM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Our building has a permanent staff of less than 10 people and none of us are graduate students. We are a small place. Research staff come from campus labs to collect their data using our scanner and other equipment. We facilitate that process. The fact that we may have inadvertently called the cops on a union organizer makes me uncomfortable, but he really has nothing to gain by coming to us. If he continues to come and look for graduate students, he will eventually become a nuisance.
posted by Nomyte at 6:19 PM on August 11, 2012

If he continues to come and look for graduate students, he will eventually become a nuisance.

Sure, and if he comes back, it probably makes sense to phone the union (you've already got their number, by the sound of it, so minimal effort) and point out that he's wasting his and your time. It doesn't need to be confrontational, just "Hey, you've probably got a mistake somewhere, as organisers keep coming by and there are no students here."
posted by hoyland at 7:07 PM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

If someone trips your gut "out of place, weird behavior" detector, you should be able to touch base with campus safety about it, and you should be able to expect a level-headed, serious but not nutso, response. Could be the guy fits into a pattern of weird behavior that the campus cops know about but you don't. It is fine to call them and let them know.

Seconding this. (I work at a university, though I am in administration, not research.) This was totally out of line and it deserves a polite, concerned letter to the head of campus security.

He caused a whole lot more harm than help, and he certainly didn't make your lab or the campus any safer. If he wants to play "what-if, what-if," well, that sure goes in both directions -- good grief, what if someone of a vaguely similar description had walked in and spooked the security officer?

The actual suspicious person was no longer on premises and thus the officer's firepower and armor was no longer really relevant, except to intimidate and frighten the staff, volunteers, and young children. A word of caution about strangers is fine, but his wild speculations were disingenuous and did nothing except sow (justified) distrust. He reacted to a call to the non-emergency line as if it was an emergency. He did a poor job of assessing risk and then he ridiculed the staff for his errors. PETA (though I think he's conflating them with ALF) and its dastardly terrorist organized corporate structure would at least verify whether there are actually animals involved in the lab work before mounting an offensive.

The bloke almost certainly has a list (that the union obtained from the university, I think) telling him there are grad students working in the building.

Its not weird that the guy came back a couple times just in case, but if the union has been doing this for more than five minutes, they would certainly know that most universities are not capable of pulling together such a list with any precision.

posted by desuetude at 7:47 PM on August 11, 2012

The officer's behavior was out of hand and should be reported both to the head of campus security as well as to a Dean or high-level administrator. Overzealous behavior and distorted analysis of the situation by someone who carries a gun and is in a position of authority is dangerous.
posted by quince at 8:43 PM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Report this idiot to his supervisor.

Exactly. The chief needs to know.
posted by LarryC at 10:09 PM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

As part of my job I grab a clipboard or put on a Comcast shirt or whatever and try to wander into areas I shouldn't be. Although I don't do it for hospitals there are people who do. If you have medical records behind your locked doors, I think you're obliged to report something like this, at least to your supervisor if not campus cops.

The police officer who was dispatched sounds like a total tool. As everyone else has said, bring it up tactfully with his boss.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 8:09 AM on August 12, 2012

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