Bill Taylor, the chief of police at Texas’s San Jacinto College, has spent four decades patrolling higher-education campuses. A veteran in the field, Taylor said his niche line of law enforcement dates to the 1960s and ‘70s—an era of widespread student unrest amid the Vietnam War and racial segregation, as well a growing concern that local and state police forces weren’t doing enough to mitigate the disorder. He’s seen lots of changes and improvements since then.

“What happened to students and people protesting? They got brutalized. Some of them got killed,” said Taylor, who also serves as president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, a professional trade organization. And that in turn prompted colleges and universities to rethink their approach to security. “I think a lot of places started thinking, ‘If we had a police force on the campus (it would be) more attuned to our student body … our community.”

Some 50 years later, campus-police units are as ubiquitous on most college and university campuses as residence halls, libraries, and tenured faculty. Over 4,000 police departments total operate at public and private postsecondary schools, Taylor told BuzzFeed earlier this year, arguing that campus officers are different from municipal police in that they “do a better job of interacting with the public.” Indeed, the University of Pennsylvania criminologist Emily Owens has found that, collectively, college police departments are more focused on student safety than on local law enforcement, typically adopting a “harm reduction model of crime control.”

A number of recent incidents, however, suggest that policing in higher education hasn’t evolved much from the violent tactics that were used to suppress Vietnam War and civil-rights activists. In 2011, a University of California Davis police officer was caught on film pepper-spraying a row of passive, seated students participating in an Occupy Wall Street protest—an event that The Atlantic’s Jim Fallows wrote “[rivaled] in symbolic power, if not in actual violence, images from the Kent State shootings more than 40 years ago.” And in another case that gained national notoriety, a University of Cincinnati police officer this past summer was indicted for murder for shooting an unarmed man in a traffic stop off campus. (The 43-year-old victim was not a University of Cincinnati student.) These incidents—and others—are increasingly raising questions about  the role of campus officers  and to whom they should report as they’re tasked with the undeniably fundamental responsibility of keeping students safe.

As with the growth of K-12 school police, some experts cite the notable prevalence of violence in educational settings as accelerating the trend of campus cops, who are typically invested with full police powers. First there was the federal Clery Act, the 1990 mandate that obligates colleges and universities to track, compile and disclose crimes on and near their campus, provide timely notification of safety threats, and report on criminal activities. For Taylor, the federal statute, which was named after a Lehigh University student who was murdered in her dorm room in the late ‘80s, was “an impetus … to move to police departments and to have armed police departments.” The massacre at Virginia Tech in 2007, the single deadliest mass shooting in the U.S., is also considered a driving force in the expansion of college and university police departments.

According to a recent Justice Department report on 2011-12 data, what’s been described as the most comprehensive survey of its kind, the vast majority of public colleges and universities—92 percent—have sworn and armed campus officers. Unsurprisingly, they’re much less prevalent at private colleges: Slightly over a third (38 percent) of them are equipped with their own law enforcement. Since the 2004-05 school year, the percentage of both public and private colleges nationwide using armed officers increased from 68 percent 75 percent.  

Yet as the numbers of armed campus police have swelled, presumably in part as an effort to satisfy the Clery Act requirements, the Justice Department data reveals a string of contradictions. The report demonstrates that crime and the presence of law enforcement on campus have an inverse relationship: Increases to the numbers of officers on campuses are paralleled by declining rates of reported crimes at the schools. Yet even despite apparent reduction in crime, the numbers of campus officers have continued to expand—as have their responsibilities. Officers have increasingly gained the ability to arrest and patrol outside jurisdictions, and the growth to law-enforcement hires has outpaced that of student enrollment.

Clery Act data shows that the violent-crime rate on college campuses between the 2004 and 2011 school years went down 27 percent, while property crimes decreased by 35 percent. In the meantime, more and more sworn officers—including those outfitted with firearms (94 percent), chemical or pepper spray (94 percent), Taser-like devices (40 percent), and in some cases military-grade equipment—were added to college campuses. Campus police departments typically act as independent law-enforcement agencies and enjoy expanding authority without the same public-reporting requirements as municipal police; they typically report to university presidents or high-ranking college officials.

These phenomena are what most concern a growing body of student activists and watchdog groups. UPenn’s Owens acknowledged that the shifts within college and university police departments raise some odd jurisdictional issues: Even though they’re narrowly tasked with enforcing the law and student safety, they’re largely exempt from “the basic idea of voter accountability that influences the behavior of local law enforcement.” According to DOJ statistics, eight of ten college police can patrol off-campus areas (81 percent) and make arrests (86 percent). Meanwhile, while some critics worry that campus officers are poorly trained, others, including Taylor, say the opposite: that the training for campus officers is comparable to municipal law enforcement in the same area. Ironically, therein could lie the problem. In hiring sworn campus-police officers, Justice Department data showed a screening process weighted heavily toward personal interviews, criminal background checks, and a clean driving record—less emphasis was given to understanding cultural diversity, conflict-management skills, and problem-solving ability.

Errant behaviors by campus law enforcement have long been a source of tension at two universities whose police forces are among the largest of their kind in the country. The increasing encroachment of the University of Chicago Police Department into the surrounding community led students to form the Campaign for Equitable Policing, which last fall held a forum to address racial profiling of residents by UCPD officers. According to the university’s student newspaper, UCPD’s force of 95 officers effectively patrols about 65,000 residents, the vast majority of whom (50,000) are not students.

Under current Illinois law, as a private institution the university is not required to disclose arrest reports, traffic stop data, or information concerning its off-campus patrols. Legislation passed by the state House earlier this year demanded that University of Chicago and other campus police forces be held to the same reporting rules as city police departments. The bill stalled in the Senate, but student advocates continued to push for more transparency. As a concession, UCPD agreed to publish a daily crime log on its website, but activists say it’s inadequate. Alex Ding, a Campaign for Equitable Policing leader, told the college paper, “We know exactly what a UCPD that is not accountable or transparent looks like. It looks like a UCPD that we know systematically racially profiles and harasses… with complete impunity.”

Similarly, public-record requests revealed that George Washington University’s campus police department was unlawfully detaining students and investigating noise complaints at private residences in Washington, D.C., according to a report published in the student newspaper in 2013. The article was part of a series of news reports—some dating as far back as 2008—by the paper examining the jurisdictional tensions and lack of transparency in the university’s policing. The public documents even revealed that GW’s campus force had exceeded its scope of authority to the extent that it was reprimanded by D.C.’s police force.

With the wide saturation of campus police and their expanded powers, a reform movement is taking hold. And on the rare university campuses without armed police officers, some students are fighting to keep it that way. Recently at Portland State University students joined Black Lives Matter activists to protest the school’s plan to arm its campus police force. Polling shows PSU students and faculty oppose armed officers on campus.

While the school says armed officers will improve campus safety, student organizers disagree. “We feel we would be much safer without them, especially with the Portland Police Bureau office main precinct being about five blocks away,” Mason Ashwill told the local Fox affiliate. “(There’s no) real reason for having guns on campus and it makes me feel a lot less safe.”