“Alright guys, I’m locking up.”
Public Safety officer Allen Koch zigzagged through the hallways of Buntrock Commons, wiggling door handles, double checking locks, turning off lights and waiting for the remaining students to leave Fireside Lounge. Beyond the uniform and badge, there was nothing intimidating about him. He chatted with students as they packed up their things, asking if they had attended the fall concert and whether or not the movie they had been watching was any good. Before leaving Fireside he turned to wonder about a lonely backpack and how the owner would retrieve it after he locked the doors.
The Public Safety job description is almost impossible to write. Contrary to popular belief, these officers do far more than ride around in patrol cars and bust student dorm room parties. After the administrators, professors, custodians and facilities workers go home for the day, Public Safety officers become students’ only resource. Whether it is a medical emergency, a noise complaint, a leak, car trouble or a bat terrorizing the hallways of Larson, they respond and take care of the situation.
Koch works what is called a “bridge shift.” It runs from 7:00 p.m. to 3:00 a.m. and covers the busiest time of the evening. During this shift he completes building lock-ups, patrols campus and responds to student and staff calls from the dispatcher. Most nights he walks six miles worth of St. Olaf hallways, checking every lock and shutting off lights, turning on alarms and making sure every building is secure. As he pulled up to do a pre-lock in Tom Porter Hall – a “pre-lock” locks the exterior doors and some of the more important rooms within the building – Koch hesitated.
He proceeded to tell stories about mysterious falling picture frames, which upon inspection still had their mounting screws twisted in tight and their hanging wire intact. He’s heard rattling laundry carts and shifting weights when no one else was in the building. One night, while filling out his log outside of Tom Porter, his patrol car was lurched forward.
“It’s a relatively new building,” Koch said, dismissing the idea that these incidents could be just creaking floors and shaking walls. Ghosts? He’s not sure.
When not responding to a call or performing a building lock-up, Koch is often on patrol. This is probably the job that makes Public Safety the most visible to students. Patrolling allows the officers to find students who need help and are unable to call the dispatcher, as well as prevent vandalism. They keep their lights on and their windows cracked open to listen for trouble.
Koch has been at St. Olaf for a little over a year. He went to school to become an officer but first worked as a stay-at-home dad caring for his four children. His wife works on-call at the hospital, so it was impossible for both of them to have jobs while their kids were young. Koch knew that eventually he wanted to end up at St. Olaf in Public Safety.
Koch’s oldest sons are in college now, one a junior and the other a freshman. He feels that having kids in college helps him relate to students at St. Olaf. He describes his relationship with students as being almost fatherly.
“I respect my kids, so I try and give students respect when they deserve it,” Koch said.
This mantra is well reflected in Koch’s interactions with students. He is friendly, welcoming and happy to be part of the St. Olaf community. Koch says that he sincerely cares about the wellbeing of students and understands that growing up is a process. He believes that just as professors guide students through academic growth, Public Safety helps students experiment and “grow up” as safely as possible.
Officer Luke Wheelock was also on duty Friday night, Oct. 23. Wheelock works the “afternoon” shift from 3:30 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. He also spent time on patrol, but rather than driving through campus, he made the rounds to some of St. Olaf’s off campus properties. Public Safety routinely checks on the radio tower, the compost, a St. Olaf owned farm and other St. Olaf owned properties on Highway 19. They are generally looking for vandalism and theft, which occasionally happens at some of the places where St. Olaf stores old tech equipment. Public Safety also patrols streets with St. Olaf student housing, like St. Olaf Avenue. They do not, however, patrol off campus student housing that’s not owned by the college. All situations and calls from these houses are responded to and handled by the Northfield Police.
Wheelock has been at St. Olaf for eight and a half years. His favorite part of the job is his ability to help people. He feels part of the St. Olaf community, but he understands that his position is one of an enforcer.
“I’m not sure I have a relationship [with students],” Wheelock said.
He acknowledged the discrepancy between Public Safety’s role on campus and students’ perception of it. He agrees that students don’t want Public Safety around until they need help, and he believes that this causes distance between officers and the student body.
For students, Public Safety’s presence is both intimidating and reassuring.
“There’s one side of me that’s the innately rebellious side that says ‘oh, they’re out to get us, they’re trying to stop everyone’s fun and infringe on our rights,’” Markus Helmken ’18 said. “But ultimately I know that’s not true. I get that they’re humans and they took this job because they’re interested in helping college kids. For the most part, I interact with them positively. I’ve never had an interaction with a PubSafe officer where I thought ‘Oh, you know, he’s not a nice guy.’”
Students often express frustration with college policies, particularly St. Olaf’s policy on alcohol and illicit drugs. As enforcers, Public Safety officer have become a face for those policies. All of the officers wanted to clarify that all outcomes of policy violations are out of their hands. After Public Safety submits a report, it’s up to the Dean’s office to review the case and decide on and implement punishment. As frustrating as the ambiguity in college policies is to some students, it allows for flexibility and forgiveness that might not otherwise be possible. Each incident and each student is considered separately.
Captain Pamela Hoffmann understands the student perspective but feels that Public Safety has a good relationship with students.
“From a Public Safety standpoint, we’re the policy enforcers, so by and large there’s a small percentage of the campus that just doesn’t like that idea,” Hoffmann said. “They want to see what they can get away with. I think overall we have a good relationship with the students.”
Hoffmann’s role as captain is similar to the officers’ role, but she takes on extra administrative responsibilities for the office, including overseeing student work programs and helping to format reports.
All of the officers commented on how unusually quiet it was Friday night. They are usually busiest on Friday and Saturday evenings, but from 10:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. on Oct. 23, not a single student called for anything other than a visitor parking permit.
Sam Mulcahy was the third officer on duty on Oct. 23. He graduated with a degree in law enforcement after a rigorous program at Alexandria Technical and Community College and has worked at St. Olaf since 2013. His training concluded with an experience involving a taser, baton and tear gas. St. Olaf Public Safety officers don’t carry any weapons besides a baton to be used only in the most extreme circumstances. Mulcahy has never used his during his time at St. Olaf.
Public Safety officers go through intense training upon their arrival at St. Olaf. All of the officers are trained to look for inclement weather through a program called Skywarn. They also complete training programs for cyber safety, sexual harassment and assault response, first aid and medical emergencies. Through a program called National Incident Management System (NIMS), the Public Safety staff is trained in detailed response plans for a variety of potential campus disasters, including campus shootings, natural disasters or the loss of a student. The plans dictate who will become in charge, which roles each officer will fill, how Public Safety will work with outside law enforcement and what resources they will need to obtain. A zombie apocalypse plan is still being worked out.
Mulcahy works the night shift from 11:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m.
“I usually get home around 8:00 and try and get the dog out for a little exercise before going to bed. I wake up around 3:00 or 5:00,” Mulcahy said. “Sometimes in the winter I won’t see the sun until my day off.”
The job requires difficult hours and can be physically challenging, but the thing that keeps these guys coming back is the variety. Mulcahy and Koch shared stories about some of their strangest calls: a snake in a dorm room, the bat in Larson and water leaks in Regents Hall.
“You never know what kind of call you’re going to get here,” Mulcahy said. “You like to say it’s routine, but it’s not.”