Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Lancaster Police Chief comments on Role of F&M Security

In an interview on Monday, NewsLanc asked Lancaster's Chief of Police, Keith Sadler, to clarify the status of Franklin & Marshall College's security force.

Questions have been raised about the precise powers and legal status of F&M Security since a Jun. 3 incident in which publishers of the Lancaster Post Ron Harper and Chris Hart-Nibbrig were arrested and questioned on suspicion of trespassing at the home of F&M President John Fry and making threatening statements to a College employee.

Harper and Hart-Nibbrig contend that they stayed on public streets and the public right-of-way and were careful not to enter private property.

They were installing a newspaper box in what they believed to be the public right-of-way.

Soon after someone on the grounds had spotted them and contacted security, a handful of campus security officers descended on the two men who were then standing across the street from the Fry residence and arrested them, allegedly without provocation throwing Harper to the ground with enough force to cause a visible contusion on his forehead

The two men have said that their cameras were confiscated and that they were held at F&M for a period of up to two hours for questioning.

We asked Chief Sadler his opinion on the propriety of F&M's response and to clarify the legal status of F&M's Department of Public Safety.

Sadler said that, as a "Public Safety" department, F&M has the authority to issue summary citations for a number of offenses - "things of a minor nature" - but that more serious offenses, as well as any actual prosecutions, are referred to the city police.

The Franklin & Marshall Department of Public Safety's website lists the following offenses for which students or others may be cited by their officers: Criminal Mischief, Curfew, Discharge of Firearms, Disorderly Conduct, State Disorderly Conduct, Harassment, Open Containers, Criminal Trespass, Misrepresentation of Age, Noise Ordinance, Public Drunkenness, Littering, and Skateboards.

"We investigate serious criminal offenses," Sadler said. "For instance, if there's a loud music complaint on their campus, they would handle something like that. That's not to say that we wouldn't - especially if they were unable to respond for whatever reason" but the campus is obviously F&M security's usual turf.

Sadler admitted he wasn't sure, at the time of the interview, of the precise status of F&M's security force in a sort of hierarchy from Act 120 certified security groups to full-fledged public police departments like they have at Millersville University, Temple University, and the University of Pennsylvania.

"Do they have arrest powers?" NewsLanc asked. "They can hold people accused of crimes for a certain period of time?"

Sadler replied, "Yeah. Take a department store for example. Somebody goes in there and shoplifts. They get caught by their store security or the store detective. They detain them, call whatever police jurisdiction polices that area, and the police come and take them in custody."

Sadler went on to say that he understands that F&M is moving in the direction of having a full police department. But "any significant incident, we're notified by them," he says.

He does consider Harper and Hart-Nibbrig's arrest an incident that should have been reported, because they are the editors of a newspaper, and F&M did report the incident to the Lancaster Police via Lancaster Countywide Communications.

But police officers can exercise their powers even outside their usual jurisdictions, Sadler says. "If I left here to go drive to Harrisburg... and halfway through there, I see some illegal activity in performance of my duties, I can make a lawful arrest even though I'm not in my jurisdiction."

He added that officers can make arrests even when they are not on duty.

In Harper and Hart-Nibbrig's case, Sadler said, "If both people were being accused of defiant trespass, both people would probably be arrested by any police department.

Importantly, Sadler did suggest that, in situations where it is unclear whether or not a trespass has occurred, the situation may warrant further investigation. Harper's posted video clearly shows that when F&M security arrived on the scene, both Harper and Hart-Nibbrig were standing in public streets. In fact, the officer in the video asks Harper, "Were you on that property?"

As for Harper being thrown to the ground, Sadler says, "Not being there, all I can say is this: every incident is different. Ideally when you make an arrest, you hope that the person turns around and puts their hands behind their back upon your request and that doesn't always happen. Sometimes you have to physically overtake somebody to place them in custody. So whatever level of resistance you're met with, that's the level you're supposed to respond with. Every cop in the country will tell you that."

The video indicated that Harper, who is treated for a back problem, was pleading with the officers not to hurt him.

As for why the security officer asked Harper to turn off his camera, Sadler said that citizens may videotape police activities, but since Harper was himself being arrested, the camera had to come out of his hands.

"If you're being arrested, at that point, your possessions are placed for safekeeping. Any kind of equipment you'd have," Sadler said.

Sadler added that the box was probably removed because F&M believed it to have been improperly placed on private property and he understands that the box was returned as soon as Mr. Harper spoke with F&M's attorney. (Editor's note: The Lancaster Post was not notified that F&M security had the box for several days.)

How long can F&M Public Safety hold an individual accused of a summary offense? "They can detain them as long as it takes to process that paperwork," Sadler says. NewsLanc noted that Harper and Hart-Nibbrig claimed that they were held for nearly two hours. Sadler said, "I don't know that that would necessarily be deemed excessive if you have to process paperwork."

NewsLanc also expressed concern that while the City Police are accountable to the Mayor and to the people, the F&M Public Safety officers' boss is John Fry.

"True," Sadler said, "but that doesn't excuse any entity from being liable...whether you're at a department store or college or an office building, you're still bound by Pennsylvania laws and you're still bound by civil court cases... When we make a mistake, we can end up in federal court being sued. An individual has a right to pursue legal action against them just like they would the police department."