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Short-staffed and confined to old buildings, USF cops try to keep up. ‘They’re spread very thin’

TAMPA — Be visible, Chief Chris Daniel urges his officers in the University of South Florida Police Department. Your cruiser, your bike, is your office. The students need to know you’re there.

It also doesn’t hurt to get officers out of the department’s cramped quarters, a midcentury bungalow stretched to its limits.

"It has worked, but it’s reached its maximum usefulness," Daniel told USF trustees last month. "We’re in a position where we can’t run any more cable through the attic."

The station has battled mold and a leaky roof. Ancient pipes send sewage up into water fountains. Out back, officers train in a doublewide trailer.

Police ranks are stretched thin, too — a problem shared by many of Florida’s university police forces, judging by a state goal of one officer per 600 students. USF falls about 16 positions short, leaving officers juggling multiple roles even as the force has worked to expand its ranks.

RELATED: $20M requested for Florida university police departments, counseling centers

"It’s like taking butter and spreading it across a piece of bread," Daniel said. "You’re tasting it, but you’re not really getting the true butter flavor."

Meanwhile, demands on police have increased as school shootings dominate headlines and mental health crises spike.

But state funding has been scarce, and universities have other priorities to weigh.

That leaves campuses exposed, said Chief Richard Beary of the University of Central Florida. His own department is more than 30 officers short, and he’s tired of pleading for money.

"The part that concerns me is, God forbid, when one of us has a situation," Beary said. "Some poor police chief is going to be the one taking the beating for that, not the one making the decisions."

• • •

Down a narrow yellow hallway hung with portraits of USF police chiefs is a low-ceilinged room with small tables where detectives hash out cases of financial fraud and theft.

"A bicycle is not a big-dollar item," Daniel said. "But to a student on this campus, that’s a way of life."

The department wants officers who’d rather help students than chase drug dealers. Temperament goes a long way.

But as USF looks for the right recruits, it’s competing with scores of short-staffed agencies across the state — all contending with decreased interest in police work.

Campus policing brings its own challenges, from mental health interventions to volatile events like white nationalist Richard Spencer’s speech at the University of Florida, which cost half a million dollars in security.

"We could just throw our hands up and hire any warm body," Daniel said. "But we’re not willing to do that because this is a critical position, and bringing in the wrong person could have devastating effects."

USF leaders have nearly doubled the police budget since 2013, much of it going toward staffing. To be more competitive, the police department added a take-home car program, boosted high-level training and raised starting salaries to about $49,000, on par with local agencies.

And yet: In the 2016-17 year, only 37 applicants out of 176 were qualified for interviews. Six made it to background checks. Three were hired. One stayed.

The next year proved better with four new hires, all of whom stayed.

Their workload is growing. Officers handled 66,000 calls for service last year, also working 360 events. Even without a full squad, crime is down 46 percent since 2015.

USF will soon be fully staffed for the first time the chief can recall, meaning all of its 57 slots for officers will be full. But according to that state ratio, adopted after the massacre at Virginia Tech, 57 officers is not enough.

With 43,500 students in Tampa, USF should have 73 officers.

RELATED: State board looks for ways to fund campus cops

More cops, Daniel said, would let the department do more proactive policing without making officers wear so many hats.

"After a while, you can see where that officer becomes a jack of all trades, but they’re spread very thin," Daniel said. "Yes, impactful, but as impactful as they could be? I don’t know. I wouldn’t think so."

USF has supported the force "aggressively" in the last five years, he said, and now it needs more help.

• • •

Every year brings a new battle for funding, said Beary, the UCF chief.

"Quite frankly — I’m about to retire so I’ll just say it — we’re constantly begging for money," Beary said. "My job, I feel like I spend most of my time begging."

Campus police have never gotten the dedicated state funding that would make ideal staffing levels a reality, he said.

The state Board of Governors, which oversees Florida’s public universities, pressed state lawmakers for money to hire more campus police and mental health counselors in both 2016 and 2017.

Lawmakers said no.

This year, the board decided the issue was too critical to wait for state funding. It told the universities to make their own plans, leaving them to rearrange budgets and make scores of hires without extra money.

Some are planning big expansions — UCF, for instance, aims to add at least 24 officers in the next five years — while others, like USF, are more circumspect, hoping to add officers "depending on resources."

USF got into hot water over its revolving door of a police force a decade ago as officials noted "serious concerns." The chief at the time said he didn’t have enough funded positions, or enough money to keep officers. With a dozen vacancies on the force, he paid officers overtime just to keep enough cops on duty. Students held a sit-in outside President Judy Genshaft’s office, saying they didn’t feel safe.

Even at UF, with a police staff that meets the state’s goal, Chief Linda Stump-Kurnick wants to hire five more officers. She says the staff hasn’t truly kept pace with UF’s growing needs.

And Board of Governors Chairman Ned Lautenbach has announced a special task force on drugs, alcohol and mental health. Student safety, he said, can only partially be addressed by police.

• • •

At USF, the state ratio doesn’t account for Sun Dome visitors, staff at Moffitt Cancer Center or the department’s 1,000-foot perimeter full of student apartments. Even 73 officers might not be the right number, USF board chairman Brian Lamb said last month.

Daniel wonders where he’d put all those people.

"Even if they said, ‘You have all of the revenue to do what you need to do,’ I could not hire what I need to because of the limitations in our building," Chief Daniel said.

University lore says the bungalow once housed a USF architect in the 1950s. Shoehorning it into use as a police station has required three additions and $350,000 in new paint, carpet and furnishings. It still has poor ventilation and cooling. There isn’t enough parking.

Daniel wants to be the best in the state, hosting events for peers, but space constraints make it hard to play a leading role. The department could work out of other buildings, but fragmenting the team would introduce a host of other difficulties.

State universities generally make facility improvements with state dollars known as "PECO," or Public Education Capital Outlay. Many projects languish on that waiting list.

"The state does provide funding for facilities, but it is also incumbent on universities to supplement taxpayer dollars with private support," said Lautenbach of the Board of Governors.

In Gainesville, where leaders are celebrating UF’s new rank among the nation’s top 10 public universities, an aging police building lags behind the school’s elite image.

"It sounds like we’re in very, very similar dire straits for a police building," Chief Stump-Kurnick said, referring to USF.

At one point, she said, the UF police facility rose high on a priority list for state funding. Nothing came of it.

"And we’re sitting in a triple-wide trailer in our parking lot," she said, "trying to do renovations on our very old building that was never meant to be a police department."

In Tampa, Chief Daniel tries to take it all in stride.

"The roof’s not falling in," he said. "Bats aren’t hanging in the rafters."

Contact Claire McNeill at [email protected] or (727) 893-8321. Follow @clairemcneill.

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