Dixie State campus safety department named third best in nation

ST. GEORGE — As Dixie State University continues to grow by leaps and bounds, its campus safety department is working to meet the increased need and improve on previous practices.

Dixie State University Police cruisers, St. George, Utah, Jan. 21, 2010 | Photo by Ryann Richardson, St. George News

Dixie State’s Department of Public Safety was ranked third in the nation for the 2020 Safe Campus Top 25 list. In the announcement, the university was also named a finalist for the Department of the Year Award along with three other university departments around the nation.

Only the top 25 universities of 4,298 U.S. accredited higher education institutions were chosen for the list. The acknowledgement does not pertain to the school’s overall safety, however, Dixie State Chief of Police Blair Barfuss told St. George News. The list of universities comprised of departments that made significant improvements to safety on campus throughout the past year.

“They looked at our nomination and determined we had made substantial improvements and progress in overall safety on campus to our students, staff and community,” he said. “It’s not overall safety according to all campuses, but it’s the impact that last year made, and it’s significant.”

From the time Barfuss was hired as chief of campus police in 2018, he said he has worked closely with university administration to meet the demands of the rapidly growing university population. Barfuss said he conveyed to the administration that we wanted to enforce standards synonymous with industry best practices if not exceed the minimum expectation.

Blair Barfuss, chief of police at Dixie State University, in his office on June 13, 2018 | File photo by Markee Heckenliable, St. George News

Throughout the hiring process, Barfuss said it was apparent that the university was looking for that same change and improvement. This observation was important to Barfuss as it showed him that the university felt campus safety was a priority and was ready to put more focus into that need.

The award, he said, emphasizes that fact that the university and other entities on campus view safety as a top priority and are willing to make changes to meet and exceed industry standards.

“It’s not just the police officers or the security personnel, it’s a community that determines where we go,” he said. “The overall community stepped up, and we basically guided and helped spearhead those projects, but the community as a whole should be recognized.”

The department’s advancement, he said, would not have been made possible without President Richard “Biff” Williams, the administration, the General Counsel’s Office and on-campus student union groups.

This most recent distinction, Barfuss said, is an indicator of more things to come. Now that the foundation has been set and the campus police department is able to illustrate their solid policy and procedure, expectations and rules, and guidance from the industry, the department can begin to advance.

Police Chief Blair Barfuss welcomes Officer Mikaela Vega to the force, St. George, Utah, Nov. 21, 2019 | Photo courtesy of Blair Barfuss, St. George News

While the department has been setting the foundation, the officers have not been able to enjoy the benefits of having that stable base, which Barfuss said can’t happen until they begin to build on top of it. He added it allows the department to bring in the community for a more collaborative effort.

These collaborative developments are already in motion. Last year, campus police began a local “Start by Believing” campaign, which is an international movement hoping to change how society responds to disclosures of sexual assault. The department’s involvement in the campaign opened the door to other movements and resources, like the “See Something, Say Something” campaign and rape aggression classes for women.

“What we are excited to bring is more community engagement through programs like ‘Coffee with a Cop’ and those types of things where you’ll actually see us more,” Barfuss said. “Now that the foundational work is done, you’ll see us interacting with the community a little more.”

The biggest hurdle that the campus safety department has had to overcome is notoriety. Until a couple of years ago, he said, most of the student body didn’t know that the university had its own police force, which is required by statute. Part of the re-branding process was creating a social media presence to both introduce themselves and become more accessible to students.

The social media pages have been incredibly successful, Barfuss said, and the department has received several questions and comments through its accounts.

Dixie State University Department of Public Safety offices, St. George, Utah, Jan. 21, 2010 | Photo by Ryann Richardson, St. George News

“That’s where our students are right now, they’re on social media,” he said. “That’s how we communicate.”

The university has worked with the campus security department to allow for seven full-time offers and 11-12 reserve officers who are full-time officers with other departments but fill time slots that cannot be covered by on-campus, full-time officers as well as assist with university events.

Reserve officers also allow the department to ensure 24-hour on-campus police presence with certified officers for the first time, Barfuss said, which he expects to begin within the next week.

With the growth that the community and the university is experiencing, seeing the number of reported crimes decrease in the department’s 2020 Annual Security and Fire Safety Report seems out of place, but Barfuss said this is the result of adjustments to reporting.

In past years, off-campus locations were included in on-campus statistics, inflating the numbers unnecessarily, he said. While working to improve the efficiency of the department as a whole, officers overhauled their data collection and reporting processes and systems, discovering and correcting the error for the next year.

“It looks like we are altering numbers and minimizing numbers when actually we just over reported the past and we’re using campus-owned progress moving into the future because that’s the expectation, that’s the requirement,” he said.

The Dixie State University Board of Trustees present campus police officers with a plaque in recognition of the department’s accreditation, St. George, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of the Dixie State University Police Department, St. George News

Increased proactive policing, however, has also contributed to the decreased instances of reported crimes. In fact, Barfuss said, the case numbers and reported instances have skyrocketed, which is mostly due to the fact that officers are documenting every building check, call out and patrol to keep better track of how their time is being used.

With this new information, Barfuss can evaluate the documentation to see how officers’ time can be used to better help the community or where the department is missing key points in crime prevention. The department is also developing programs where officers meet with student housing managers — on and off campus — as well as collaborating with St. George Police Department.

“Our collaboration and our collective partnerships have been great,” Barfuss said. “The community is supported by essentially two police departments: our own little Dixie State Police Department, which does our best, and St. George Police Department, which has additional resources.”

Dixie State’s Department of Public Safety is the only accredited university police department in Utah, and one of only seven agencies in the state accredited by the Utah Chiefs of Police Association.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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