UK  officers spread thin at rivalry football game

Understaffed police force needs to triple to reach national standard

By Alice Haymond

With 28 seconds left on the clock, UK took the lead again, and Maj. Joe Monroe gathered six officers into a huddle behind the goal post.

They broke and spread out along the end zone as the final seconds ticked by. Monroe paced between the line and the wall in front of the stands, anticipating the fans’ reaction when the clock ran out.

The crowd is going to rush the field, the interim UK police chief had told his team of 43 officers when they reported to Commonwealth Stadium nearly 10 hours earlier. Instead of trying to prevent the charge, Monroe told his officers to focus on lowering the goal post and preventing injuries.

Like many of the day’s assignments, maintaining control in the end zone was a job too large for the UK police force to handle by itself. Although the department is relatively similar in size to the forces at several of UK’s benchmark universities, it needs to triple its numbers to meet the national standard that the state is urging it to attain.

UK’s department, which has 44 officers, had more backup than usual for the rivalry game between UK and the University of Louisville on Saturday. The Lexington Police Division provided 115 officers while Kentucky State Police, UK Parking and Transportation, UK Security, and independent security company Andy Frain supplied additional support.

From the afternoon meeting until kickoff at 7:30 that evening, the goal posts moved to the back of many officers’ minds as they directed fans to first-aid posts, controlled traffic, and escorted the UK band, game officials and players into the game.

As Monroe drove a golf cart through parking lots three hours before the game, he stopped to talk to a few tailgating friends and then Lexington Police officers, one of whom waved and said, “You ready for the job, man? You ready? Can you handle it?”

Monroe laughed with them but didn’t answer as he waved goodbye and drove on.

When UK officers paged Monroe about last-minute problems, like buses blocked by traffic and a shortage of police cars due to maintenance issues, his answer was always the same: “We’ll just have to adapt; we’ll just have to do the best we can.”

Even with the backup, officers could not give their attention to every situation. As four UK officers waited on their motorcycles to escort the UK band, a man biked by and suggested that police ride over to State Street, where he said things were out of control.

Sgt. Bob Pearl told the cyclist that State Street was the metro police’s responsibility, but he wasn’t surprised that certain areas near UK’s campus needed more patrol.

“When you have 200,000 people, when it’s over that many people, you can’t spread your forces,” Pearl said.

Nationwide shortages

Since UK released its first Women’s Safety Study in late 2004, UK has added four officers to its force. Even that small increase has helped organize some of the chaos, Lt. Bill Webb said.

“The difference between us now and the way we used to be is we’re deeper, way deeper, though not as deep as we need to be,” Webb said, looking across the rows of tailgaters.

Monroe said he’d like UK to be comparable to universities that are adding more officers, such as University of Florida, which has 100 police officers, or Vanderbilt University, which Monroe said recently increased its police department from 85.

UK has one officer for every 891 people on campus, including students, faculty and staff. That ratio is higher than the average of nine of UK’s benchmark universities, one officer for every 1,120 people, according to data obtained from the universities and a survey released by the Purdue University Police Department in August.

Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, North Carolina State, Penn State, Purdue and Wisconsin were the benchmarks measured.

Like UK, several of those universities want to increase their police forces.

Capt. Jon Barnwell of the North Carolina State University police department said its force of 55 is sufficient for standard policing but is not enough for the other tasks required of university police, such as alcohol education.

“We need to stay above standard staff so we can do more proactive things,” Barnwell said.

The national standard for the police-to-population ratio is one officer for every 300 to 350 people, according to the Campus Safety Report released Sept. 7 by Gov. Ernie Fletcher’s task force on campus safety.

The task force’s report urged Kentucky institutions to increase their forces to meet the national standard. With nearly 40,000 people on campus, UK would have to increase its department from 44 officers to at least 117 to meet that goal.

A stronger effort would make it possible to reach that standard at UK, Monroe said.

“We’ve got to add more than two positions a year,” he said. “We’re going to have to increase our authorized strength  (to) up around 75.”

After kickoff on Saturday, officers were in and out of the police assistance room in the stadium, munching hot dogs and cookies before heading back out to prevent fights and keep the aisles clear. Many were already tired.

“We’re definitely going to get held over tonight,” Officer Evan Ramsay said. “We are not going home anytime soon.”

“Maybe we’ll go home tomorrow,” he added jokingly.

All officers, all day

Every officer is required to work football and basketball games in addition to the regular patrol shifts, something Monroe said wouldn’t change even if the department were larger.

A rule prevents officers from working both the night before a game and the night after it. Some officers get a good night’s rest before the game and hardly any afterward, and others try to cram in a 7 a.m.-to-noon nap, hoping to last until the crowd clears the stands.

“It’s a personal preference,” said Lt. Greg Hall. “Either way, we’re tired.”

As the game came to a close, most of the UK police force moved out into parking lots, leaving a few officers behind with two minutes on the clock and Kentucky State Police by their sides to manage the task of safely taking down the goal posts.

Before UK scored the final touchdown, Monroe stood pensive with his hand to his mouth as he scanned the crowd. Cheers erupted as the scoreboard changed and UK police prepared for the rush.

When the clock ran out, the officers ran to the field and surrounded an area for the goal post to fall. Students blurred past them, dodging officers and occasionally rolling away, off the hands of officers shoving them when they were too close.

As ecstatic fans gathered in the center of the field, Monroe turned and grinned in relief for the first time that night. The worst was over, he said, and then he directed his remaining officers to traffic posts.