A new chief in town

Police officers will soon be more visible and more involved with student organizations at Northern Kentucky University, according to incoming chief of police Jason Willis. The 37-year-old police veteran from Mt. Lookout, Ohio, will begin work on Nov. 1 taking on the challenges of keeping students safe, informed and not stuck in traffic.

Willis said he thinks the number one threat on college campuses is probably “overconsumption” of alcohol and irresponsible consumption of alcohol.

“I’m really concerned about alcohol and irresponsible use by college students,” he said. “You know, a college student trying to cram four years of college into one night.”

So, what does this mean for a student suspected of an alcohol violation on campus? Will they be sent through the student judicial system or be cited and sent to court?

“I really believe at the end of the day with students, we’re there to educate,” Willis said. For him, the most important thing is making sure the student learns from the mistake and will not repeat the behavior. He says pulling students aside and making sure they know that this kind of behavior cannot be repeated is his regular practice at Miami University (Ohio), where he is wrapping up his service as operations commander for their police force.

“Sometimes we will do that through the internal process. Sometimes we will cite. It’s a case-by-case basis,” he said.

A second threat that Willis said is always in the back of his mind are the active shooter scenarios, which have happened in recent years at other colleges including Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University. But Willis downplayed that as a university specific threat, saying that “those things can happen anywhere.”

But keeping students informed of potential threats and teaching them about how to deal with them in the future is another goal for Willis, who will have to disseminate information to campus through Norse Alert.

Norse Alert has been criticized by students and some perceive a lack of consistency in the announcements. For example, a gunshot went off during a fight in an NKU residence hall in November 2008 and no alert was sent out. However, when someone saw a person in a parking garage with a holstered weapon in May 2010, the alert went out on campus for what turned out to a Secret Service agent who was scheduled to talk to a class. Just this month, NKU called federal agents to respond to a suspicious package labeled “small pox” that the mail room received but chose not to send out an alert or share information on its website, or even with the chair of the division to which it was addressed. The suspicious package was determined to be a hoax.

There is a lot of criticism when a university fails to communicate threats to students, Willis said, but he added that he has “never seen anything where they’ve said you communicated too much.”

Nonetheless, he acknowledged how it could become an issue.

“It’s a fine line. You don’t want to send out so many messages where people say it’s just another message from the police,” he explained.

Willis said he plans to study traffic patterns after starting his job to see how to improve the experience of students going to and from class by car or foot at peak times. He said he will work a lot with others, including the current police officers, to see what is working best and what needs improved. He also plans to collaborate with the city police in Highland Heights.

The NKU police force will also work to better collaborate with students.

“Day-to-day interaction is the most exciting part of my job,” Willis said. Willis said he will work to make sure officers are more visible and approachable. He also plans to engage the community with presentations and community meetings. He says he will always welcome students to meet with him.

Willis plans to follow a similar model that they have at Miami University where specific officers are appointed to be liaisons with different campus organizations. At Miami, Willis is a liaison for an international students organization and for athletics.

Willis beat out two other candidates for his position, including Lieutenant Colonel Bobby Wince, the current assistant director of public safety at NKU. But, Willis says he does not expect bad feelings between the two.

“I’m sure he was disappointed not getting the position,” Willis said. “I haven’t had the chance to meet him personally, but he seems like a great guy and will be an asset to me in the future…He’s a consummate professional. He’s a very experienced police officer.”

Also, he thinks things will smooth over quickly as he is the “new kid” on the police force.

“We just need to communicate with each other and set expectations and discuss what I expect,” Willis said. “Once the officers get to know me, they are going to enjoy working with me.”

Willis has worked in the police field for 14 years, and says he hopes to stay at NKU until he retires.

Story by Jesse Call