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Police walk the dorm beat

Stepped-up presence at UMass raises tensions over privacy

AMHERST -- Two University of Massachusetts police officers sniffed the air as they walked the seventh-floor corridor of Washington Hall, a 22-story dormitory. As the smell of freshly-burned marijuana thickened, the officers stopped at individual doors, nearly pressing their noses to the cracks.

Finally, they located the suspected room and knocked.

The officers were conducting a routine nightly dorm patrol, a controversial new practice and part of an expanded police presence on campus. More than 325 surveillance cameras track movements of students and visitors at the entrances to all 45 residence halls and in some areas of the most problematic halls. Three K-9 teams troll for drugs, and 30 student police cadets radio to police when they spot trouble.

Today, a group of UMass students, some of whom say the campus has become a police state, will hold a rally to call for removing police from dorms. More than 2,000 students have signed petitions protesting the dorm patrols, and top student leaders say they believe the university has gone too far by letting campus police roam the dorms.

UMass is one of a growing number of public universities nationwide at which officers patrol dorms in an effort to curb student drinking and rowdiness. The University of Maine at Orono has gone so far as to assign an officer to regularly work at each of its 19 dormitories.

The beefed-up police presence has led to tension on various campuses, with students arguing that universities are violating students' Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

They also say the patrols stifle the notion of college being a time for self-discovery and experimentation.

Earlier this year, a superior court judge ruled against a decades-old policy at Washington State University that allowed police officers to patrol dorm hallways. The judge said that corridors of dorms are like the students' home and that police have no right to be on a specific floor without permission from a student who lives on that floor. The Board of Regents amended the policy last month, expanding the definition of who could be a residence hall guest, making it possible for police to patrol.

"It really infringes upon students' individual rights if they feel like they are being monitored," said Elvis Mendez, president of the Student Government Association at UMass, who lives at Washington Hall, a dorm that has been frequently patrolled. "We want to make sure students feel like this is their home."

UMass Police Chief Barbara O'Connor defended the patrols, saying officers have a legal right to be in the dormitories and to make arrests based on crimes they see in plain view. O'Connor started encouraging officers in November 2005 to get out of their cruisers and check regularly at many of the 45 dormitories, which house 12,000 of the university's approximately 26,000 students.

The university became particularly intent on improving security after some 1,000 people rioted on campus following a 2003 Red Sox playoff game, overturning cars, setting fires, and throwing bottles at police. The university also has long been trying to reverse its "ZooMass" image.

Campus police devote much of their time to the southwest part of campus, where more than 5,000 students live in about 16 dorms. It was the setting of the Red Sox playoff game melee.

UMass police officers, who patrol mostly in the evenings, have to walk a line between protecting individuals' privacy and investigating crime on the dorm patrols, said Charles J. DiMare, director of the university's legal services offices for students. They make routine dorm visits and patrol particular floors based on student complaints or tips from resident assistants. Sometimes, in the process, they stumble upon other suspicious behavoir.

Unless they have a warrant, police need to seek a student's permission before they enter a room, DiMare said.

"Students don't throw away Fourth Amendment right because they walk onto a college campus," he said. "Students do have an expectation of privacy in their homes."

O'Connor said that this year police will have increased the number of calls they make on campus to roughly 25,000, up from 17,000 last year. UMass also has been arresting more students for drug and alcohol violations, according to the most recent data available.

On the 1,400-acre campus, security cameras are tucked in the corners of residence hall lobbies, where student security guards check IDs as residents enter. Student police cadets, created by UMass in 2002, also stand watch in many lobbies in police-like uniforms and hats.

The cadets, paid about $12 an hour, work from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. on weekends in 16 to 18 dorms known as trouble spots. About a dozen of the university's 30 cadets receive special training and carry handcuffs, pepper spray, and a baton.

The cadets occasionally confront a student who is acting out. For instance, if a cadet spots a student who appears very drunk and in danger of hurting himself or others, the cadet will talk with the student to determine whether police should be called.

"Students tend to respect you," said Jessie Cameron, who became a UMass police cadet two years ago. "They do respect the uniform and authority."

Students said they don't mind cadets or police in the lobbies. The problem, they say, is when police go upstairs into the residence corridors.

At Washington Hall late last Friday night, regular campus police officers Brian Kellogg and George Colon received a lead from a residence assistant to check out the 11th floor. As they headed up in the elevator, they smelled the marijuana when a few students got off on the seventh floor.

When the officers found a room where they suspected marijuana had been smoked, they did not enter because the student who answered their knock did not invite them in. They made a mental note, though, of the room number, planning to keep an eye out for further trouble.

During an incident several hours later, around 2 a.m. Saturday, a different set of UMass police officers made an arrest. Police officers had rushed to a courtyard near dormitories to respond to a fight. One of the suspects, who appeared to be drunk, went inside Washington Hall, refused to show an ID, and bolted past the security desk.

The cadet in the lobby radioed the police outside, and five officers, including one in fleece and jeans, ran inside, struggled with the male student, and eventually arrested him.

"This used to be the land of the free," said Jordan Grinstein, of Ashby, a sophomore majoring in biochemistry who observed the arrest but not the reported fight. "They are arresting people for petty drinking."

Fliers for today's rally feature a posed photo of a female student in a tie-dyed T-shirt being handcuffed by a student posing as undercover officer. "Your friends are being arrested," the fliers warn.

The UMass Cannabis Reform Coalition, a student group that supports the legalization of marijuana and is sponsoring the rally, created the flyers.

Justin Sawyer, one of the group's presidents, said his group has received complaints from students that undercover police officers have posed as pizza delivery people to persuade students to open their dorm doors. "It's like a police state," said Sawyer, adding that police "are creating a culture of fear and paranoia."

O'Connor denied police are using underhanded tactics to convince students to open their doors. She said undercover police officers sometimes go into dorms for ongoing drug investigations and make arrests.

Some students say they support the university's increased police presence. "It's nice to go to sleep in a dorm that's secure," said Lauren Bishop, 18, a freshman biology major from Rutland.

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