‘Trying to change the narrative’: Public safety officers work to build community


Iowa State University Police Department

There are currently six public safety officers.

It has been nearly a year since the implementation of the public safety officer program, a unit within Iowa State University’s Police Department created with the idea of removing police officers from situations where they are not needed.

“My leadership team and myself were talking about things happening across the country,” Chief Michael Newton said. “Part of that discussion revolved around trying to get police officers out of things that, really police officers don’t need to be involved in.”

After brainstorming ideas, the team found the Iowa Board of Regents had a position for public security officers, and Assistant Chief Carrie Jacobs worked on initial roles and responsibilities.

Currently, there are six public safety officers, which allows for a public safety officer to be on duty most of the time, according to Newton, who describes them as the “constant eyes and ears on campus.”

Who are public safety officers?

“I don’t even know how many of y’all know we exist,” said Jake Gohlmann, a public safety officer since April 2022.

Public safety officers can be seen driving around campus in a black Malibu or red truck with “Iowa State University Public Safety” on the vehicle, along with the public safety officer patch, which is different from the police officer patch. The biggest difference found on these vehicles is a light bar that helps direct traffic and lets people know to slow down in the case of an oncoming incident.

Public safety officers drive a car that has a distinct public safety officer patch. (Iowa State University Police Department)

The officers themselves can be differentiated from police officers by their unique patch and uniform of gray pants and a French blue shirt.

“I think even though we do the best that we can to differentiate ourselves from an officer, when people see us walking through buildings, the common perception is something is wrong or somebody’s in trouble because they see us and believe that we’re police officers there to stop somebody committing a crime,” said Timothy Murphy, a public safety officer since March 2022.

Unlike police officers, the only weapon public safety officers carry is pepper spray in case the need for self-defense arises.

“The biggest misperception is that we’re there because something bad has happened, and that’s usually never the case, especially in our role.” Murphy said. “We’re there because we want to have those positive interactions, and us being there can also be a deterrence for bad things happening.”

A typical day, Murphy said, can include doing general patrols. This differs from officers, who are sent from call to call. This allows officers like Murphy to make more of a personal connection, interact with people and make sure buildings are safe.

Newton said public safety officers can be seen directing traffic during accidents, staffing different areas of the stadium, checking buildings, providing security for Mary Greeley Medical Center, patrolling campus and doing lockouts.

“They also can take lower level things like a bike theft that happened three, four weeks ago,” Newton said. “That doesn’t necessarily need a police officer to take that report, so they’re doing some of those types of calls, too.”

Unlike police officers, public safety officers can’t make arrests and do traffic stops.

“We get to help continue to move forward and build that community… but we get to do it at a more personal level,” Murphy said. “We’re not having to worry about investigating crimes on a constant basis; we get to have that opportunity to just interact with people.”

Building community

Murphy said the best thing is when people feel comfortable to come up and ask questions about him, other police incidents or come forward to report something.

“No one should be afraid to approach us; we’re literally here to help, and we enjoy the interactions,” Gohlmann said. “We’ll give you guys free puppies or stuffed animals, and we have department gifts that we can give out.”

Newton said the goal of the department is to strive to be a different kind of police organization where students feel encouraged and able to approach officers, talk and have conversations.

“All of our police officers and public safety officers are very friendly and willing to sit down and talk with anybody about the issues that they’re seeing,” Newton said. “I would encourage people not to be scared to invite us, ask us to have that conversation.”

Newton said having those conversations might lead students to find that there is a similarity between their thoughts and the thoughts of officers on the way things are and what needs to change.

“It’s important for people to know that we are trying to change the narrative around what public safety looks like,” Newton said. “We want to be a different department. We want to show people everywhere what good public safety can look like.”

While a part of good public safety is having good police and public safety officers, the answer, according to Newton, is building relationships with the community.

“We can’t do this alone. If it’s just one piece, that’s when you see issues in communities,” Newton said. “If we can all band together, I think we’ll have a better long-term, healthy, safe society.”