By Biometrica staffer
Over Memorial Day weekend in 1996, Kristin Denise Smart, a freshman at California Polytechnic (Cal Poly) in San Luis Obispo, mysteriously disappeared in the middle of the night when she was walking back to her dormitory after a party.
Her parents say that it took campus police nearly a month to turn her missing persons case over to the sheriff’s department — a crucial oversight, they say, that delayed justice. Twenty-five years later, Kristin has still not been found. Though her parents declared her legally dead in 2002, six years after her disappearance, they have never received her remains nor any form of closure.
As part of their quest to honor Kristin’s memory, the Smarts championed and saw passed in 1998 a law in the state of California that they hoped would stop cases like Kristin’s from slipping through the jurisdictional gaps between campus police offices and local government law enforcement bodies. In today’s piece, we take a look at this relationship and the Kristin Smart Campus Safety Act.
Here is a brief overview of Kristin’s case. At around 2 am on the morning of May 25, 1996, Kristin, an architecture major, was walking home to her dormitory on the Cal Poly campus. She had just left an off-campus party and was reportedly slightly tipsy. She was accompanied by a friend, who soon peeled off towards her own room, and another student at the university, Paul Flores.
This was the last time she was seen alive and Paul was the last person to be seen with her. Authorities say Kristin did not have any identification, money, or extra clothing on her when she disappeared. She has not contacted her family or friends since.
Paul quickly became the focus of the investigation, but there was not much evidence to concretely tie him to Kristin’s disappearance at the time (more on this later), despite “troubling discrepancies” in his story, particularly in relation to how he had received a black eye he was sporting. He was interviewed by the police multiple times, but always pleaded his Fifth Amendment rights and never disclosed any information.
Though allegations of wrongdoing haunted Paul his entire life, it was only last year that he once again became the primary suspect in Kristin’s case. Earlier this year, in April, just a month short of the 25th anniversary of Kristin’s disappearance, prosecutors arrested and charged Paul, now 44 years old, with first-degree murder, alleging that he killed her during an attempted rape. Paul’s 80-year-old father, Ruben Flores, was also arrested and charged as an accessory after the fact for allegedly helping hide Kristin’s body. In September, a judge ruled that both men will stand trial.
Some scant forensic evidence has been cited in singling out Paul as the killer. Even in 1996, sniffer dogs apparently “alerted” when brought near his mattress and dorm room. Around the time he was arrested this year, authorities may also have found “a patch of disturbed soil under the deck, consistent with a shallow grave” at Ruben Flores’ home in Arroyo Grande, California. At this site too, cadaver-sniffing dogs indicated something suspicious.
If Kristin’s body had been buried there, however, it was “recently moved” and was, thus, not recovered. Officials say that the search warrants associated with the case are sealed and so they cannot disclose what was found, though in March 2021, the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson said some “forensic physical evidence” linked to Kristin was recovered.
Cal Poly Campus Police
Kristin’s disappearance, in some ways, served as a wake-up call. Because she vanished over a long holiday weekend, at first campus police were not sure whether she had just gone home or on vacation, or whether she was actually missing, even though her friend alerted them to her fears. It took them three days to open a formal investigation, and six days to bring Paul Flores in for an interview. Officials later admitted that this hampered the investigation.
Campus police departments rarely have to deal with issues as serious as homicide, so were less equipped to respond. The case was only turned over to the local sheriff’s homicide department when the academic year was over. By that time, the dorms had been cleared and cleaned, even the suspect’s, leaving little evidence behind. Paul himself had left for the summer. Before that, campus police said there had been little legal cause to search his room. Shortly after, Paul dropped out of college.
Kristin’s parents were “outraged” at the time lost in investigating their daughter’s disappearance and so campaigned for the law named after their daughter. The Kristin Smart Campus Safety Act, signed in 1998, mandated public colleges in California to set up a framework that made it clear exactly when campus police would have to call in outside police to help investigate violent crimes.
While campus police still have primary jurisdiction over crimes on their grounds, they have to at least establish some kind of minimum, formal, written agreements or Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) with local policing bodies. This law served as a follow up to earlier federal legislation, the Crime Awareness and Campus Security Act of 1990 (also known as the Clery Act), which made amendments to the Higher Education Act of 1965.
Critics say that university officials are often reluctant to report statistics regarding violent and/or sexual crimes or engage with local police for fear that their institution’s reputation may be damaged, which, in turn, could affect enrollment. This is especially true if a college may be deemed unsafe just for an increase in such figures, when really what could be behind it is just more reporting due to tighter safety standards.
Another issue is that universities typically have their own internal “judiciary proceedings,” which could involve a tribunal or a trial of sorts that reaches a verdict on a case without informing police. These are often private and confidential events and punishments end up on the student’s academic record, which is protected by federal privacy laws. Through such mechanisms, victims may be dissuaded from officially reporting crimes to police and the perpetrator can avoid a potential public trial or arrest.
The Role Of Campus Police
So what are campus police and what is their role? The campuses of the roughly 4,000 colleges and universities in the country are home to millions of students, and it can be challenging and resource-draining for law enforcement to deal with every single case on their own. Campus police exist to provide assistance to local policing organizations as they can often respond quicker.
Per one definition, they are “sworn police officers” that are employees of the educational institution, not the state or local government. As sworn police officers, they have full arrest powers granted by a state or local authority. Their main duty is to protect people and property on what is officially defined as that institution’s campus. Public safety offices at universities employ a range of people, including former law enforcement, security guards, and even student workers.
In an ideal situation, they should be working in tandem with the local police or sheriff’s department, who probably have resources, avenues, and the ability to investigate more serious crimes that occur on or outside a campus but that involve someone with ties to the university.
A 2015 report (the latest such data available) from the Department of Justice (DOJ) found that roughly 68% of 4-year colleges and universities with 2,500 or more students had a campus police body made up of sworn police officers, though public institutions were more likely to have such a force than private ones.
As of the 2011–12 school year, the DOJ said, around 75% of campuses were using armed officers. Further, about 7 in 10 campus law enforcement agencies had an MOU or other formal written agreement with outside law enforcement agencies.
The issues most frequently addressed were rape prevention, drug and/or alcohol education, stalking, victim assistance, and intimate partner violence. Per the DOJ, between 2009 and 2018, the number of reported forcible sex offenses on college campuses increased over 380%, and constituted nearly half (43%) of all criminal incidents reported on campuses in 2018.
The Clery Act mentioned above governs crime reporting requirements for universities that receive federal aid. We will cover this piece of legislation in another story at a future date.