Inflatable flamingos, temporary tattoos, and tongue-in-cheek ad campaigns are all part of Iowa State University Police Department's student-safety arsenal, which aims to promote responsible behavior in a fun and fresh way that-omigod!-actually gets students' attention.
At ISU, police don't decry public urination; they run smart-aleck public service announcements proclaiming that "The World is Not Your Toilet." Underage drinkers are reminded "Be 21 (Duh!)" A Spring Break-themed campaign encouraging responsible partying features promotional materials emblazoned with a cartoon flamingo, and the slogan "The Cops Gave Me the Bird."
"We have a perfect climate for that on a college campus, for bringing in pop culture and a sense of humor," says Sgt. Liz Gries, who coordinates the department's outreach efforts.
"We have to use language that identifies with a population that tends to be somewhat rebel-ish," she adds. "If we're using language that everyone else is using, then we have a better chance of it not falling on deaf ears."
The department began to reevaluate traditional policing tactics in the wake of several high-profile student disturbances surrounding Veishea, a popular, weeklong carnival/concert/parade/food festival held at ISU. The event, which attracts tens of thousands to the city of Ames each April, had been the scene of a multitude of disorderly conduct incidents since the late 1980s.
Student misconduct reached critical mass in 2004, when police were forced to use riot-control tactics to break up a rock-throwing crowd at an enormous off-campus spring party. Hundreds of rioting students set fires, shattered store windows, attempted to flip a marked patrol car, and caused an estimated $100,000 in property damage.
"Bottles were thrown and officers were cut," Gries remembers. "Tear gas was used, students were pushed. We had to look at some avenues to promote a change in behavior without it being an adversarial conversation every time we stopped and talked to someone."
These days, Ames municipal police and ISU officers join forces to patrol neighborhoods known for rowdy gatherings. Before party season even gets started, they distribute packets detailing noise ordinances, open-container laws, and other related issues. On weekends, Party Response Team officers patrol in a bright yellow 2007 Toyota SJ Cruiser donated by a local car dealership. The logo on its door: "Yeah, It's The Cops."
Officers' initial visit to a loud party is deliberately low key. They introduce themselves and hand out tropical-theme key chains and pink T-shirts, and a giant, inflatable flamingo. The blow-up bird is given to the party host, which also identifies him as the point of contact, should officers have to respond back out.
"When we come into parties now, everyone sits down on the floor and it becomes somewhat of a show," Gries says. "We're just taking it down a notch from 'We are the authority, you have to do what we say,' to making it very casual. Then when we ask them to turn down the music, they say, 'Heck yeah, that's all you want us to do?'"
Early intervention works to keep even large parties manageable, says ISU Police Capt. Gene Deisinger, a seven-year department veteran.
"Depending on what they see, officers may shut the party down, but the emphasis is on trying to problem-solve with the host to see if it is controllable," he notes. "That's more likely to occur if the police and hosts know each other, and there's not an adversarial relationship to begin with."
ISU police officers also employ a creative approach to another perennial policing challenge: curtailing disorderly behavior among the nearly 10,000 football fans that congregate at parking lot tailgating parties before Cyclones games.
"We had problems in terms of a high volume of underage drinking, public intoxication, and drinking-and-driving incidents," Deisinger says. "Some people with families were very uncomfortable. (And there were) other issues that create a negative environment, such as urinating in public, trash left behind, foul language, and rarely, but occasionally, nudity."
A few days before a game, the student newspaper runs full-page teaser ads-cryptic black rectangles featuring a single sentence in white lettering. The following day, another ad will appear, along with a more detailed message from ISU Police.
"The World is Not Your Bathroom," read one advance ad. The next day, students were greeted with "10 Quick Tips to Avoid Getting Arrested by ISU Police." (One of the suggestions: "Know when to say when-long before you're tossing your cookies on a cop's shoes.")
One year, officers patrolled tailgating lots armed with handfuls of black rubber wrist bracelets emblazoned with the words "ISU Police." (The letter "o" was replaced with a trendy, friendly heart symbol.) Students who were having fun and partying responsibly got a wristband. Students who were intoxicated or disorderly didn't.
The bracelets became unexpectedly popular giveaways. As students clamored to interact with officers, police had the opportunity to casually check IDs and watch for signs of public intoxication (a misdemeanor crime in Iowa.) Over the years, officers have also distributed temporary tattoos, and black ISU Police baseball hats, which became another surprisingly in-demand fashion accessory.
Such merchandise giveaways are part of the "ERR"-Education, Reinforce, and Reward-policing philosophy practiced at ISU. The trinkets also function as subtle reminders to behave in a civil manner, even when officers aren't around to emphasize the point.
"Police and psychologists use a lot of the same skills, just for different purposes," says Deisinger, who is himself a clinical psychologist with a doctorate in psychology from ISU. "We both have to assess situations and understand human behavior. We respond to and prevent certain types of behavior and help people deal with the consequences of their behavior. A lot of it is about helping people change their behavior."
ISU officers say they plan to keep creating innovative crime fighting strategies.
"Police tend to be a very tradition-based group that functions under the 'Because We Said So' idea," Gries says. "But especially in academic communities, you have to address the sentiment of 'why.'
"Law enforcement is a funny occupation," she adds. "College students are hilarious. And we have to not lose sight of (the notion that) college is supposed to be fun."
Bryn Bailer, a former newspaper reporter, is a contributing editor for Police. By night, she is a member of the Tucson (Ariz.) Police Department's Communications Division.