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WCU police practice a different brand of law enforcement

fr wcupoliceYou probably won’t see them on television with the “Bad Boys” theme song playing in the background, jumping chain link fences or tackling shirtless men in motel parking lots — unless they have to. Rather, a lot of what goes into running Western Carolina University’s police force, one of the most complex law enforcement outfits in the region, happens behind the scenes in the planning room.

Last Thursday afternoon, second-year Police Chief Earnest Hudson and his officers were preparing for first home football game of the season. The agency’s 20 full-time officers, along reserves and support staff, were being delegated to positions throughout campus while Hudson WCU’s Emergency Manager Tammi Hudson, who also happens to be his wife, stood by dozens of surveillance screens in the command center.

From the command center the couple can utilize the campus’ more than 150 cameras to direct resources and personnel such as police officers and medical staff in anticipation of nearly every imaginable scenario — from a riot to, as Tammi Hudson put it, “clean up on aisle five.”

Crowds were expected to be in the thousands that night for the late football game with an 8 p.m. kick-off time, with drinking and revelry to boot. But that night’s game was just the first of the season and one of many events the campus cops have to patrol and control.

Earnest Hudson, a former investigator with the Indianapolis Police Department, explained the unique and often understated role of university police. The campus spans 600 acres and has a population of roughly 10,000 students. That makes it Jackson County’s largest settlement. WCU’s police force is larger than the town of Sylva’s and just a few deputies smaller than that of the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office. 

“We are a town, but we have two events a week, and Sylva has two events a year,” Earnest Hudson said in reference to the constant event control and planning his agency undertakes.

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But there is a caveat. For example, while Jackson County Sheriff’s Office — the neighboring law enforcement agency of comparable size — has to deal with lawbreakers just like the campus police, Earnest Hudson said it is unlikely that Sheriff Jimmy Ashe receives as many calls from parents as he does. He explained how his officers are often caught in the strange limbo of administering law to students who are technically adults but still kids warranting leniency in the eyes of their tuition-paying parents.

“If the sheriff arrests a 19-year-old, will his mother call him?” Earnest Hudson said, 

The police chief said his agency can’t just carry out the narrow mission of law enforcement, but instead has to act as a component of the educational process. On a campus where many of the students — and their parents — see themselves as customers paying sometimes upwards of $10,000 per year for an education, law enforcement operates with a different mindset.

As a result, many students caught for violations on campus are passed through the student judicial process rather than put through the state court system.

Nevertheless, he said, parents expect their children to be safer on campus than in the outside world, which is why Earnest Hudson says thinking about events such as the shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007 gives him grey hairs.

“We have to protect the students from outside sources of danger, inside sources and themselves,” Earnest Hudson said. 

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