The job of a security officer on an urban college campus is a stressful, highly visible position. High turn-over rates are not uncommon; finding people qualified for a position that requires composure under pressure along with cultural sensitivity and understanding can be difficult. In a city like Seattle, a rising cost of living and perpetually underfunded college system adds to this rotation.
In addition to security officers, Seattle Central College is searching for a security administrator after a gap of several months, but Roberto Bonaccorso, Public Information Officer for Seattle Central College, says there is a plan to fill that vacancy. “We have posted the position, and reached out to other higher education institutions’ security departments. We are also contacting people who have been interested in the job in the past. We’d like to fill the position as soon as possible, but we are taking the time to find the best fit.”
“We face the same challenges as other colleges and universities,” said Bonaccorso. That means “finding someone with the best skills who also fits the character and chemistry of an existing and established team.” SCC is located in a busy urban center, with issues of vandalism, trespassing, and other activities that can discourage some candidates. SCC security officers have to balance the need to keep everyone safe with the mission to maintain a welcoming and accessible campus.
SCC’s newest qualified security officer, Carmen Taylor, was an MP (military police officer) in the U.S. Army for four years before becoming a law enforcement officer in Springhill, TN, and has been working for colleges for several years now. She moved to Seattle in 2003, left in 2010, and came back in 2015. She admits the city has changed a lot. “It’s a lot harder to live here now than in 2003. It’s more populated every year, and more expensive.”
There are nine full time officers divided among 15,000 students over a property spanning two city blocks. The average pay of an SCC security officer is between $40-43K annually. For that, officers must be qualified according to a specific standard with at least two years of prior experience. Several of the applications submitted to Central in the last few months were rejected for not meeting the criteria.
Providing a safe space for everyone who is part of this community is a high priority for Taylor, who places an emphasis on learning and growing every day, in addition to supporting and being a fan of people who are all trying to do better. She says the thing that drew her to Seattle Central College was the experience of the other officers on campus as well as the community she found here. “I knew this would be a place that would make me better at what I do.”
Security officers are required to wear many “hats.” Taylor and other officers answer phones, open locked classrooms when keycards don’t work, respond to calls for assistance, address minor medical emergencies, and direct people to the places they need to go. Her public position also requires her to escort out those who shouldn’t be on the premises. The vast majority of what officers are paid to do is protect students from threats and disturbances. “Students, faculty, and staff are our primary concerns,” said Taylor.
Officers answer far more calls during the day than at night, but those answered in the evenings when the students have gone home are typically evictions. Taylor stresses that she and her fellow officers place the highest priority on professionalism and public interaction but, in an urban environment where drug use and homelessness are day-to-day realities, they can’t always be “nice.” Taylor recently responded to an after-hours incident where she was called to evict someone with a needle from one of the second-floor restrooms.
Normally, when Taylor has to ask someone to vacate the property, she starts out by quietly asking them how they’re doing, “just checking in with them as a human being, because sometimes a person just needs to be heard and acknowledged.” But when it comes to needles and the threat to health and safety that they represent, “that switch gets flipped.”
“This is my house, and these are the rules,” said Taylor. In the moment when a threat is introduced, she has to care less about how someone is doing as a person, and more about maintaining situational awareness of the three things she’s suddenly faced with: the biological threat of human blood, an exposed needle — and someone who may lunge toward her in an altered mental state. “I will loudly and clearly instruct them to put the needle down, leave the space, and not come back.”
Taylor says that balancing the intense dynamics produced in this environment is the hardest part of her job, but she still loves the challenge. “That’s how you grow.”
“Everyone in leadership and on the field has the same goal — to keep our campus safe, open, and a welcoming place for everyone who comes to us for education, training, or community,” said Bonaccorso. “We all believe that a professional, prepared, and approachable security team is a key part of that goal.”
Bonaccorso says that SCC President Sheila Edwards Lange is “committed to that goal, and has made available the resources to make it happen within the limits of our revenue situation.”
“I am thankful every day for the people that I work with,” said Taylor. “They have transformed parts of me and have made my life better. She is also thankful that she gets to assist young people as they reach for their futures. “It’s an addictive energy.”
If she could offer students one piece of advice when it comes to their own personal security, their health, and their well-being, Taylor says that students need to “look around more often,” and be aware of their surroundings. “Don’t leave your stuff unattended,” said Taylor. “Security’s door is always open for a reason.”
*An earlier version of this article misnamed PIO Roberto Bonaccorso as Ricardo Bonaccorso; we are sorry for the mistake.