In a Q&A with FIU News, Chief of Police Alexander Casas ’07 gives an inside look into how policing the university has changed during the coronavirus pandemic.
How has the pandemic affected the FIU Police Department?
With things like COVID-19, you don’t realize how it’s going to impact you until it does. Despite all the preparation you do, it’s almost a day-to-day adjustment to new data, projections and information. We’re always adapting our plan.
Here at FIU, we’re an interactive, service-oriented and problem-solving police force. Yes, we provide security for the campus, but a lot of what we do goes into providing a service for our students, faculty, staff and visitors. The way we do that has really changed.
What are some of the major changes?
We’ve kind of changed the way that we touch our community. For example, the lobby of our department is not the place to interact with your officer right now. If you walk in during an emergency, we will get you help. But we need you to call us for things that we can do via Zoom or e-mail, like asking for a copy of a police report.
I have my command staff meetings on Zoom now. The police subculture is very close-knit, so for us, that’s a huge paradigm shift. We conduct roll call in a parking lot, spaced out. We’ve provided our officers personal protective equipment, hand soap, sanitizers and Lysol wipes. Each vehicle has received a deep cleaning.
We have also advised our officers to stick to a few reliable sources of information, like the FIU coronavirus web page, the Center for Disease Control and the Florida Department of Health. If you kind of stick to those three, you’re going to be in good shape.
What do patrols and other services look like?
We try to conduct our patrols so that we are not having interactions up close, but you still see us around and have a sense of security. We try to be visible among the dorms, where there is a higher amount of traffic than the rest of campus. We try to encourage social distancing without being intrusive.
The demand for service has greatly been reduced, which requires a greater emphasis on deliberate visibility. You’ll see cars parked around in different areas, specifically so you’ll notice the car is parked with officers in them. That way, you understand that we are still here, ready to provide you service.
We are a visible component to our community for calm. Our community looks to us to see how we are reacting to what goes on. They will emotionally feed off that reaction. If we present a calm, deliberate and controlled posture, our community will be relaxed when they are around us.
How much have requests for services decreased on campus?
We’ve experienced an approximately 50 percent reduction in calls for service since the university went to a remote working and learning posture. The vast majority of our existing calls are self-initiated in the form of area, building and parking lot checks.
Normally, your style is to socialize and schmooze with people around campus. How valuable is that to your job? And is there anything you are doing to make up for that?
Our bread and butter is our connection to the community. It was already a challenge getting to know all of the students at FIU. Every year, you have a new group of students that you need to build a connection with. Right when you get comfortable, they graduate.
It gets complicated without personal engagement. We use social media to stay in touch. I try to personally respond to things. For example, I’m always liking Barstool FIU’s content and engaging with them. While sometimes we are the subject of their jokes, they are good to me. It helps when our Barstools of the world see their police department as someone they can trust. When I have something I want the community to be aware of, I’ll message them and say, ‘Hey, do me a favor. Push this out for me.’ We’re going to non-traditional venues to stay connected to a community that we could lose touch with during these times.
Because of the time I’ve spent time with students, a lot of them are comfortable talking to me. They will reach out to me on social media and ask me about stuff that happened off-campus, whether they were victims of sexual assault and are teetering on whether or not to make a report, or they are involved in a domestic relationship that’s abusive and they are asking for guidance. Some of them are having crises. They will call me in their moment of crisis, and I’ll get them in touch with Counseling & Psychological Services and get them help right away.
There’s a lot of value in staying connected to the community. It’s hard to quantify.
Amid the pandemic, Chief Casas tries to keep things light on social media when he can. Check out some of the Zoom backgrounds he has been using in meetings, per his Instagram.