A night in the life: Riding along with the University Police

December 17, 2010

It's 12:15 a.m. on a cold Friday in December on Penn State's University Park campus. In front of Atherton Hall, two students crouch below a first-floor window. This unusual activity catches Officer Dustin Miller's eye as he drives his unmarked police car around the building's half-circle driveway.

"You all right?" Miller asks out his car window. The suddenly startled students turn their heads and one responds, "Yeah. She's playing the bagpipes for my roommate's birthday."

Miller laughs and drives away. As his car pulls around the second half of the driveway, the howl of bagpipes blares out the notes to "Happy Birthday" in the distance. It's not the wildest thing he's seen in his four years with University Police, but it's one of the more unique activities he'll see tonight.

Miller is working the night shift. He won't be calling it a day until 8:30 a.m. Because it's so cold (blustery and in the 30s), it's a fairly quiet evening. Even though a tame night like tonight might appear relaxing, Miller prefers to stay busy. He also prefers to ride a police bike, which he does for most of the year. On nights in the spring and early fall, University Park is a much different place at this time of night.

"You don't have to do this very long before you realize where the most activity is at certain times of night," he said. "At around 2 a.m., you don't want to be up by the airport, because you know you'll be called to East Halls or Pollock (Halls) real quick…that's where most of the activity is around that time."

University Police has full law enforcement authority. It is not like other college campuses that have security services or guards. The unit is responsible for protecting the entire Penn State campus and also assists with off-campus agencies when needed. At a moment's notice, Miller could be dealing with anything from a traffic stop, an unruly person, helping someone find a car or providing directions to the Berkey Creamery.

At its office in the Eisenhower Parking Deck, University Police has the law enforcement facilities of a mid-sized city. On this particular Thursday night, Police Dispatcher Mark Baney staffs the dispatch unit. He also is working the night shift. Above his head, the news is on a small television. In front of his face is a wall of computer screens.

Several screens show surveillance cameras stationed all across campus. The screens that hang directly in front of his chair show the alarms at every building on campus, as well as a screen that monitors all of the emergency communications in the region.

"There are always dispatchers working -- 24 hours a day," Baney said. "If it's Christmas morning, we're still here."

Deep inside the police's home base is similar to the stations seen on police television shows. There is the Records Room that houses every report and citation that officers write. There is the evidence room chock full of envelopes, plastic bags and cameras. There are interrogation rooms, one outfitted with handcuffs in case of a bad-tempered detainee.

Outside in the dark cold night, Miller continues his rounds around campus. He shines his spotlight on the trees in front of East Halls and waves into the darkness of the Arboretum. He turns down Shortlidge Road toward the Eisenhower Parking Deck and parks the car.

When most Penn State employees are making their way to work, Miller will be calling it a night. He'll be back later that day, driving around campus, working to keep Penn State safe.

  • At 4:29 a.m. Penn State University police officer Dustin Miller checks an illegally parked vehicle during a routine early-morning patrol.

    IMAGE: Andy Colwell
Last Updated March 21, 2011