Ride Along Gives Insight into Workings of DPS

By Bryan K. Alfaro | THE EASTERN ECHO
Added February 5, 2012

Eastern Michigan University’s Interim Chief of Police Lt. Robert Heighes offered The Eastern Echo the opportunity for a reporter to ride along on patrol with some of his officers, as part of the Department of Public Safety’s commitment to transparency and building student relations.

The evening began at 5 p.m. on January 27, in DPS headquarters in the office of shift supervisor Sgt. Mathias Buckson, who has spent his entire 25 years in law enforcement working for EMU DPS.

Buckson originally grew up in Detroit, but moved to Southfield his junior year and graduated from Southfield High School, after which he earned a B.S. from EMU and attended the police academy at Michigan State University in Lansing.

“I had a couple of other job offers and I chose Eastern. I chose to stay here,” Buckson said.

He added that DPS officers are qualified to work as police officers anywhere in the state, are sworn in with the City of Ypsilanti and can respond to calls within the city limits when assistance is requested.

Buckson said DPS officers usually try to “freeze” a situation when responding to incidents off campus, and if appropriate, hand the case over to Ypsilanti Police.

We left Buckson’s office around 6 p.m. and began patrolling the campus in his SUV, which was designated car 407.

Buckson provided a tour of the old DPS headquarters, on the bottom floor of the parking structure near Bowen Field House, to illustrate the many differences between the two buildings. It was immediately obvious how much smaller the old building is by comparison, even with the lack of furniture. The building housed EMU’s Parking Department as well.

Buckson credits former Police Chief Greg O’Dell with increasing campus safety by hiring additional officers, obtaining new rifles and long guns and building relationships with students.

“I’m not sure what all Chief O’Dell accomplished in isolation to someone else, but these things occurred while he was here,” Buckson said. “I mean there’s always that thought out there, ‘We need more officers. We need more this.’ But he got it done, you know what I mean, and refused to be talked out of not getting it done. So that’s what I lost.”

Buckson is referring to the loss of former Police Chief Greg O’Dell, who suffered from depression and took his own life December 23, at which time EMU President Susan Martin named Lt. Heighes as interim chief of police.

While Buckson said he felt the old DPS headquarters was small and that the department had outgrown it, he was more concerned about being understaffed at the time and wasn’t really excited about the prospect of a new building.

“I’m a people person. My goal is to [go to the station] and do reports. [When] I do a report all I need is a little space and I’m going back out there. I want to be out among the people,” he said.

But on Sept. 10, 2009, when the renovations were done and the DPS moved into its current 10,600 square foot headquarters, formerly the Hoyt Conference Center, Buckson had a change of heart.

“I was like, ‘My goodness chief, this is great,’” Buckson said. “I didn’t believe that I would get that excited over a facility. There’s just something about the pride of walking into a state-of-the-art police department that looks like a police department. It really did make a difference and I was surprised at that.”

During the Sept. 22, 2009 ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new DPS headquarters, President Martin said the former headquarters was not a sustainable area, and now the DPS has a modern facility with updated technology.

At the ceremony, former Police Chief O’Dell thanked Martin and the Board of Regents for completing the $3.9 million renovation project despite hard economic times.

“It’s greatly improved the working conditions of police officers,” O’Dell said to the gathered crowd. “It is now customer friendly. Today, we will show you a police department you can really be proud of.”

Buckson said it’s his personal feeling that campus crime has dropped from what it was in the late 80s and early 90s.

“Though it goes in waves, I still think that our campus is so much safer. And our crime, particularly person-on-person crime … I don’t see as much of that as I did back then,” he said.

Buckson said the most important thing students can do to protect themselves on campus is to pay attention to what’s going on around them.

“By the time you have to get into a physical altercation your first line of defense has already failed, which is your awareness of your surroundings,” he said.

Buckson went on to say that some students say they don’t lock their front door in their hometown, to which he responds, “Maybe you don’t, but that doesn’t mean that’s the smartest thing to do.”

“Crime can happen anywhere, you know. Sometimes you don’t have to find it, it finds you. It seeks you out,” he said.

Buckson said the Student Eyes and Ears for University Safety (SEUSS) program is used, but not often enough and that he regularly witnesses students walking alone at night.

“If it’s late at night, and you’re walking from point A to point B, use our SEUSS program. That’s what they’re there for; they’re there to escort you,” he said.

“I recall responding, this was years ago, to a situation of…,” Buckson is cut off mid-story at 6:14 p.m., while leaving the old DPS headquarters, by a dispatch call over the police radio.

“Thirty-two I’m going to need you to reroute, tag 14 a medical at Jones Pool,” the dispatcher said.

The responding officer said, “Copy. Thirty-two come back.”

“Copy, and I have a female swimmer going in and out of consciousness, at this point, on the pool deck,” the dispatcher said.

“Ten-four,” the officer responded.

“Station—407 will be on route also, from Oakwood and West Circle,” Buckson said over the radio.

“We don’t normally take the sidewalks, but in emergencies we do,” Buckson said after mounting the curb with his vehicle and steering down the walkway toward the Recreation and Intramural Sports Department Building (Rec/IM).

Buckson quickly made his way on foot to the Olympic-sized Jones Pool in the Rec/IM building, where the EMU Eagles women’s swimming and diving team were hosting the Miami University RedHawks for a swim meet.

The Miami University student, whose name will be withheld out of respect for her medical privacy, lay on the ground with a team trainer attending her.

Buckson covered the student with a jacket and talked with her, to gather information and assess her condition.

Periodically swimmers approached and offered words of comfort to their teammate. Within minutes Huron Valley Ambulance services arrived on the scene, and took the student to St. Joseph Hospital in Ann Arbor.

The Eagles lost to the RedHawks 167-132.

Afterwards, Sgt. Buckson gave me over to officer John Phillips and car 432.

Phillips worked for the Pittsfield Police Department for 30 years, and served as Director of Public Safety, which is the same as chief of police, for the last 10 of those years.

“They didn’t have the title of chief at the time. I ran both the police and the fire departments over there,” Phillips said.

At the end of 2008 when his contract expired, with Pittsfield Township, Phillips decided to retire.

Phillips told MLive in 2008 that he was grateful for the opportunities and people that working with the Pittsfield Police Department had afforded him.

“I’m finishing a long career and I think it’s a great place to work,” Phillips told MLive.

At that time EMU Police Chief Greg O’Dell asked Phillips, who had worked for EMU DPS in 1978, to work part time at EMU.

“I was here, went away for 30 years and I came back,” Phillips said. “Greg said he wanted to put some temporary officers in the housing units, as walking police officers, actually on foot. And I came over here and joined up with Greg O’Dell, because he asked me to be a part of that. He was a super guy. He was probably one of the best police officers and best administrators, that I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. And Greg and I worked together when he was in Ann Arbor and I was in Pittsfield. We did a lot of stuff. So when he came over here and asked me to be a part of this department as a temporary officer, man I jumped at the chance.”

Phillips said he believed in what O’Dell was doing in reorganizing the department, supplying officers with the tools needed to do their job and focusing on trust between students and the DPS.

“We had lost some of that trust, and his mission was to get it back and he did,” Phillips said.

He went on to say that he’s proud to work alongside other officers working towards that same goal.

“Because we feel like this can’t stop because Greg’s no longer with us. I mean we’re not going to let it fall, because this is what he wanted. This is what he’s going to get, whether he’s with us or not. This is going to be the mission that we’ve got in the future. It’s been a good department to work with, even if we do it one student at a time,” Phillips said.

At about 6:45 a call came through saying a Toyota Matrix had rolled out of a parking space in the Oakwood South Parking Lot.

Unable to see any damage or cars out of place Phillips said it looked like another officer had already taken care of the problem, as another patrol unit had just left.

Phillips explained the touchscreen computer system in the patrol car, which looks like a 14-inch laptop computer mounted between the front seats.

“This is called the CAD screen, or computer aided dispatch, and everything that we do comes over the CAD screen. We get all of our calls over this. We write all of our reports on this. We don’t have to go back to the station to write police reports. We can write them right from the car,” Phillips said.

The DPS CAD screen uses the Courts and Law Enforcement Management Information System (CLEMIS), which links multiple law enforcement agency databases and enables immediate communication between officers from departments around the state.

“We’re all on the same system and that’s a good thing,” Phillips said.

The CLEMIS website lists Genesee, Livingston, Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw and Wayne counties as law enforcement agencies, in southeastern Michigan, that have implemented the service.

Officer Phillips was able to retrieve a profile of the Toyota Matrix owner within about 10 seconds of inputting the license plate number.

Phillips said huge steps have been taken to improve campus safety and that EMU DPS has some of the best investigators and detectives in Washtenaw County.

“We’ve got really some of the best cops, that I’ve ever worked with, right here at Eastern Michigan University. And I don’t say that just because I’m a part of this thing. I mean I’ve got no horse in the race. I don’t have any interest in promotions anymore or anything. I wanted to be a cop again,” he said.

Phillips said he wouldn’t want to be a criminal being sought by EMU DPS.

“Because you’re going to get caught,” he said. “It’s all under the premise of providing a safe learning environment for the students, at Eastern Michigan University. There’s a lot of parents out there that invest heavily in this university with their kids education, and we don’t take that for granted.”

But Phillips said he also believes students should take some initiative for their own safety, by remembering basic safety habits, such as walking with a partner at night, locking doors and protecting personal property.

“We got so many [students] that for the first time in their lives, their out on their own and they’ve got so much stuff on their mind, with their studies, and their schooling, and their financial aid and they forget the basics,” Phillips said.

At about 7:04 p.m. a call came over the radio that a resident advisor at Walton Hall reported a suspicious odor, while performing door checks on the ground floor, believed to be marijuana.

Resident advisors go from door to door in the dorms, to make sure students are locking their doors as a safety precaution.

“We’ll get a lot of these in the course of the evening,” Phillips said. “Not all of them do we find. The ones that we do find we’ll either issue violations, or forward them onto student conduct.”

Phillips said the DPS isn’t soft on marijuana violations, but the student’s cooperation and whether it’s possession or possession with intent to sell is taken into consideration.

While it was apparent that marijuana was present in the dorm, officers were not able to locate the source and had to list the report as unfounded, or closed without a suspect.

Phillips left Walton Hall and continued on foot to Dining Commons Two, where he waved and smiled at students, and stopped to talk with ones he knew and a few that he didn’t.

Phillips chuckled as he described the length some criminals will go to, such as attempting to steal chicken nuggets by putting them in a fountain drink cup and trying to pay for a drink. Obviously the thief was caught, because he’s telling the story.

He went on to say that DPS officers spend a lot of time in the eateries talking with students, and that the university allows a small budget for officers to purchase food and drinks for students to help build a rapport.

At 7:45 p.m., after leaving the eateries on foot patrol, a female “screamed” outside Walton Hall, which Phillips referred to as a “chirp.” Upon walking around the corner of the building Phillips encountered three students, one male and two female, walking together and giggling.

Its what he thought it was, nothing, but better safe than sorry.

Phillips said the DPS takes a hard-line approach on campus predators, who target students, and people just looking to cause trouble. He said it usually doesn’t take long to identify and ban those people from campus.

Buckson said EMU does have the ability to ban people from the campus for a year, and potentially longer if the infraction merits it.

Related Material:

Eastern Echo article archive: Part 1 of 3: Ride Along Gives Insight into Workings of DPS

Eastern Echo article archive: Part 2 of 3: EMU DPS Officer Offers Insight on Campus Safety

Eastern Echo article archive: Part 3 of 3: Safety is Top Priority

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