Bruce Benson, who was hired Jan. 14 to coordinate public safety at USF, is answering to charges related to polic spying at Michigan State University (MSU), where he served as Chief of Police for six years.
Benson’s controversial involvement in a spying case at MSU began when someone set fire to Agriculture Hall at MSU in December 1999. The Environmental Liberation Front later claimed responsibility for the event – which Benson described as “one of the most dangerous and violent attacks upon the university in its history.”
The MSU police department, Benson said, suspected that a non-student in the group Students for Economic Justice (SEJ) was to blame for the fire. This individual remains a primary suspect in the arson case, Benson said.
To trace the suspected arsonist, the university president, vice president and Benson decided to assign an MSU police officer to pose as a student and attend SEJ meetings and rallies. After the undercover investigation was discovered, attempts to find the notes taken on the suspect and the group were unsuccessful.
Benson was criticized by students – as evidenced by articles in MSU’s school paper, The State News – and others because of the covert operation as well as the destruction of the notes taken during the investigation.
Benson explained the reason for destroying the notes.
“The primary suspect was very guarded and secretive, and the officer was not able to obtain information from him regarding the arson case,” Benson said. “As is normal procedure, the officer’s notes were destroyed when her investigative attempts were completed. This avoids complaints of keeping secret notes on issues which do not proceed to prosecution.”
Benson thinks he was justified in his decision, despite negative reactions to it.
“The job involves controversy,” Benson said, noting that the spying was just one in a string of incidents that took place during his time at MSU.
He said that there were riots three years in a row on the MSU campus, a then-recently passed “Minor in Possession” law which required police to arrest any minor found with alcohol, and two additional arson attacks.
He wants, however, to put the spying into perspective.
“Keep in mind that this situation is from about eight years ago, was fully examined in an open community context, and that I also presented the issue for full open discussion by my campus-wide Community Advisory Committee, which I met with once a month,” Benson said.
Benson, who makes $120,000 a year, was brought to USF to lead the new Division of Public Safety, which University Vice President Carl Carlucci said was created in response to recommendations from a security consultant and lessons learned at Virginia Tech.
“The tragedy at Virginia Tech not only created a national discussion of shootings on college campuses but raised the larger issue of campus crime and safety and security issues,” Carlucci said.
Carlucci – who was unaware of the spying incident when he hired Benson – said in an e-mail that he chose Benson for his expertise.
Benson came highly recommended, Carlucci said, as someone who had a wide range of experience in both community and university policing.
“We wanted someone who had the stature and background to work with our UP leadership and someone who understands that college campuses are special communities and the safety of the student body is our first priority,” he said.
The position, Carlucci said, requires a manager to write and develop policies and procedures – which was a recommendation of the security consultant.
“So a faculty member makes sense,” Carlucci said, referring to Benson’s years of teaching criminal justice at both MSU and USF Sarasota Manatee.
Benson said the situation was severe at no point were student or faculty rights violated.
“The issue of students’ rights is very important to me, and those rights were protected fully during this serious investigation of a violent non-student suspect” Benson said.