He’s physically imposing and powerfully built at well over six feet tall. Add to that the uniform and gun, and Cpl. Joe Shanley of Syracuse University’s Department of Public Safety can come across as an intimidating figure.
Until he opens his mouth, that is.
When he says, “Hey guys,” to a group of passing students, you get the feeling that he’s extending a genuine greeting, not prefacing an interrogation. When he says that he’s “trying to change the image of what a police officer means” in his distinctive Bronx accent, it’s easy to believe him. When he ends his sentence, with his trademark “Does that make sense?” it’s clear that he’s actually concerned that you understood him correctly.
Shanley epitomizes the efforts that DPS undertakes on a day to day basis. Officers interact with students in ways that impact their safety every day, whether or not any criminal activity is involved. That could mean anything from breaking up a fight on Marshall Street to referring a homesick freshman to counseling services or reporting on the status of a student involved in an accident from outside the hospital room.
Or as Shanley put it, “We have the same parameters as a normal police department. We can arrest you, God forbid, but we can also help you.”
With the recent rash of criminal incidents near campus, DPS is upping its presence, dramatically increasing patrols and educating students about how to stay safe off campus.
“My primary goal and ambition on a nightly basis is to go out and interact with the community,” said Shanley. “You’ll see me around residence halls a lot. That’s my primary function. I try to be at as many social events as I can just to be a visible person.”
The role of the DPS has evolved over the years, said John Sardino, an associate chief who’s been with the department for 27 years. After several incarnations, DPS personnel are now classified as “peace officers,” meaning that they are essentially the same as municipal police, but only in geographic areas owned by SU.
“Today we look a lot more like a typical police department,” Sardino said.
The officers who work for DPS also look like typical police officers. Much of the time, that’s because, like Shanley, they are veterans of city police departments. Shanley spent 20 years in law enforcement before retiring and coming to work for SU. It’s a transition Shanley has enjoyed.
“For me, it’s definitely been the most rewarding time in my professional career,” he said. “I feel good about myself just about every day I go home from work, feeling I made a bit of a difference.”
For some, however, the transition isn’t easy. The duties at DPS are more all-encompassing than those of a typical officer, which can lead to some difficult adjustments.
Sardino recalled coming across a female student walking alone while patrolling with a new officer late at night. He suggested that they pick her up and give her a ride home. When the new officer asked why that was their job, Sardino recalled responding, ““Because I’d rather give her a ride then talk to her two hours from now after something happened.’”
Sardino said he believes those situations offer opportunities for DPS employees to do another essential part of their work: educating students and ensuring access to DPS personnel.
“We’re really expanding on that role now,” he said. “It’s something that we’re embarking on and that’s really important to me, creating that atmosphere where students feel secure coming to Public Safety and reporting things, and establishing that relationship, especially on-campus and in the residence halls, where almost every student knows a public safety officer by name.”
They certainly know Shanley’s name. He’s a favorite among students for his friendliness and approachability. “I think half of being a good, committed person is being visible and showing that you really do care,” he said. “Community policing is really trying to become part of the community.”
From his point of view, Shanley said he believes the department’s proactive methods are the best approach.
“I’ve seen what a municipal police department’s about. I’ve seen tragedies. I’ve seen headaches,” he said. “A lot of traditional law enforcement is you get rewarded for doing something that people kind of classify as heroic .... but realistically, someone had to get hurt or some tragedy had to occur before that ‘heroic’ type scenario presented itself. For the people who visit our community, they deserve people who are more committed to hopefully educating you to make better choices in life.”