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New director brings changes to Public Safety as events spark campus concern

After students arrived back on-campus for the start of the 2021-2022 academic year, Public Safety’s former director, Fred Behr, announced he would be retiring. He was the first director of Public Safety at St. Olaf, and he remained in that position for nearly 34 years. 

Following the fall semester, Public Safety announced that Behr would be replaced by Derek Kruse, a retired police officer with nearly a decade of experience. St. Olaf announced that he would begin at the start of interim. Before he joined the department at St. Olaf, Kruse worked as a peace officer for both the South St. Paul Police Department and the Mesa Police Department in Arizona.

This change in leadership, he described in an email to the Messenger, was a transition for “both Public Safety and the on-campus community in general.” Going through the transition period was one of the first “challenges” of the year for Kruse, he wrote. Another one of the challenges he faced when stepping into the new position was the student perception of St. Olaf Public Safety. 

“Part of this perception is how students may link Public Safety to law enforcement, and that brings its own unique challenges, especially since there is a large amount of distrust between the public and law enforcement in America,” Kruse wrote. “When you have general distrust, that breaks down communication and legitimacy, which can lead to misinformation and confusion.”

Given this challenge, Kruse emphasized that strengthening relationships between Public Safety and the Student Senate, St. Olaf EMTs, Northfield Police, the Rice County Sheriff’s Office, and the Northfield Fire & Rescue is imperative to the department’s development moving forward. The new Public Safety mission statement that Kruse developed after arriving, found on their website, highlights the importance of maintaining a safe and secure environment for all students, faculty, and staff to learn, work, and thrive as a community.  

“A lot of students believe that we are here to bust parties and get students in trouble, when the truth is the exact opposite,” Kruse wrote. “That’s not our primary focus.”

Kruse implemented other new changes to Public Safety’s practices, including the creation of a Public Safety Advisory Committee, sending out monthly newsletters to the campus community, installing cruise lights on all vehicles, and requiring monthly training for officers and staff.

While the campus remained quiet as most students studied away from the College during interim, activity involving Public Safety has increased over the course of the spring. Two of the most recent events that have impacted the safety of the campus community are a series of catalytic converter thefts over the past several weeks and a serious violent incident involving two students during the early morning of Sunday, May 1.

Kruse noted that although “the challenges that Public Safety faces are not something that can be corrected with just policy and procedure changes,” they can be resolved over time. Kruse’s goal, as noted above, is to work towards building a strong relationship with the campus community. 

To meet that goal, Public Safety plans on implementing a Threat Assessment Team – which was already in the works prior to the incident – that focuses on preventing potential threats and investigating current on-campus matters. At the University of Iowa, for example, a director, HR representatives, and health care advisors make up the Threat Assessment Team. They serve as primary contacts for over 30,000 University community members concerned about behaviors or situations that could pose a threat to the overall campus.  

Other new additions include a digital phone app that students can download on their mobile devices. The app will allow students to contact Public Safety more easily than with a phone call, as well as providing real-time GPS location when activated in the case of an emergency. The app will serve as an addition to the blue light phones located in various locations around campus. It is still in development, but Public Safety hopes to launch it starting sometime next year. 

Starting next year, a revised version of the current Public Safety website will include a transparency portal, providing more detailed information in regards to policies, procedures, training, and more. The updated website will allow more direct access to these resources for students, faculty, staff, and parents.