U. of I. students Alex Tran and Angela Annarino prefer to work in the dark.
While their peers are studying, sleeping or unwinding at the end of a long day of class, Tran, from Chicago, Illinois, and Annarino, from Lamont, strap on their work vests and radios. It’s during the night when they are needed the most.
The two are members of the Student Patrol, a group of trained student officers who perform a range of public safety activities on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus. The most notable of those services is the SafeWalks program, which provides free walking escorts at night to any student, staff or faculty member who needs to travel across campus in the dark but does not want to do so alone.
“I’m able to help fellow students get home safely and make sure they feel comfortable being on campus,” Annarino said. “That’s our number one main concern.”
At any given time, the Student Patrol employs as many as 39 students who work closely with University of Illinois police officers and other Division of Public Safety employees to watch out for other campus community members through programs like SafeWalks.
But it’s not just public service — it’s career training. In Student Patrol’s 32-year existence, many student officers have graduated to become sworn police officers. At the end of the last school year, Student Patrol officers were hired by the FBI and the Champaign and Boulder, Colorado, police departments.
In addition, two of the three new police officers hired this summer by the University of Illinois Police Department came straight out of the Student Patrol program.
Campus Security Coordinator Ryan Johnson, who oversees the Student Patrol program, said that is a great advantage. Those two new officers will be positioned particularly well in the department because they’ve already worked closely and have built “a special relationship and bond” with U. of I. police officers.
Because the U. of I. does not offer a specific criminal justice curriculum, Johnson said Student Patrol is a great supplement for students in associated majors like sociology or social work who may be interested in law enforcement careers.
”It’s an excellent opportunity for college students to witness and experience the various levels of public safety,” Johnson said. “It gives them a firsthand taste of what a professional career in law enforcement entails.”
The U. of I. Police Department employs a total of six officers who started in student patrol. That includes Police Chief Jeff Christensen, who was the first-ever Student Patrol supervisor when the program began in 1983.
Tran, a Student Patrol team leader and training coordinator who will graduate at the end of the school year, is looking forward to a career in law enforcement himself. But his interest in Student Patrol did not start that way.
“I needed the extra money,” Tran said. “I needed a way to pay my bills, and eventually it turned into a very strong interest in public service and law enforcement.”
He said the people he gets to work with inspired his law enforcement interest.
“It’s honestly because of all the officers I’ve worked with, seeing the professionalism, seeing how courteous and kind they are,” Tran said. “The place I want to work for is a place where I can get along with my co-workers.”
Student Patrol officers receive training that mirrors what new police officers learn, like how to respond appropriately in what could become life-threatening situations.
“We’ve gotten calls where somebody calls for a SafeWalk for a friend,” Tran said. “When we meet the person who called, they bring us to their friend. The friend is completely intoxicated, passed out drunk, they don’t know where they are, they don’t
know who they’re with.”
Student Patrol officers carry the same radios as police officers, which means they have a direct line to help when they need to call for backup. They are specially trained in what police officers colloquially refer to as “verbal judo,” which are communication strategies they can use to calm people down and defuse tense situations.
That comes in handy when student officers may be trying to prevent a fight from breaking out – or even when the intoxicated friend might not be totally on board with calling an ambulance.
“You keep cool, and you don’t let it get to you,” Tran said. “If they’re angry, don’t take it personally. They’re not angry at you, they’re angry at the situation.”
The most important part, Tran said, is getting that person the help needed Getting a job in law enforcement is not every student officer’s motivation. Annarino, for instance, transferred to the U. of I. last year and wanted to meet people and learn her way around campus. When her friend told her about Student Patrol, she was sold.
“I just fell in love with it and fell in love with the people,” Annarino said.
The overwhelming number of student officers actually have no law enforcement aspirations, Johnson said.
“We are always looking for students who are caring, have outgoing and friendly personalities, demonstrate great communication and problemsolving skills and have a desire to give back to their community,” Johnson said.
One of those who maximized his personal abilities to enhance campus safety is Michael Hao, from Lake Zurich, Illinois. The computer engineering student used his programming ability to promote public safety by developing a mobile app that makes it easier for students and others to request a SafeWalks escort from the convenience of their smartphones.
That app was launched during the spring 2015 semester. It was so successful that Hao was recognized for his efforts when Crime Stoppers awarded him the first-ever Dave Benton Outstanding Champaign County Crimefighter award.
Student Patrol officers perform other campus safety duties, too: They work security details during special events like concerts and football games, they document outdoor lighting issues in need of attention and they ensure that emergency phones located around campus are operating.
“These units provide extra eyes and ears for police officers, emergency personnel and other first responders,” Johnson said.
Annarino sees it as something much simpler: Amid all the warnings from university police, she just wants to offer a friendly hand to her classmates.
“I would hope someone would do the same for me,” Annarino said. “They realize they’re not alone, and it’s not so scary.”