By Beth Byrd
It is a handful of minutes past midnight, and Tom Erwin is wide awake.
Safety and Security’s third-shift supervisor slouches on a worn wooden stool in the welcome house, the square brick building on the north side of campus that divides the stream of incoming and outgoing traffic.
The welcome house is about the size of a dorm room and looks just as appealing inside, with its plain white walls and scuffed laminate floors. Computer monitors rest on a small wooden desk facing the windows that overlook arriving vehicles. Donning a black coat and khaki trousers – the standard officer uniform – Erwin sits in front of the humming machines, the eyes of campus cameras.
The 1998 Union alumnus leaves the lights switched off in order to better see through the glass, which serves as his view of the quiet campus for a third of his 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift. But the surrounding light poles gleam through the windows, illuminating an empty chair in the corner of the room and a single-serving coffee pot perched on top of a white microwave.
The coffee Erwin holds in his hands, however, comes from Barefoots. He drops by at closing time as baristas wipe down the counters and gather trash.
“They give me a cup of coffee sometimes,” Erwin says, grinning, as he sips the steamy joe sprinkled with sugar-free sweetener.
Suddenly, lights glare across the window. He looks up as a car on Walker Road careens around the snaking curve toward the welcome house. Like clockwork, another car pauses at the entrance to Cherry Grove apartments, and then the motorist steers the vehicle onto Walker Road – right in front of the oncoming vehicle.
Tires squeal and horns blare, but there is no sound of crushed fiberglass. Erwin springs to his feet as both cars screech to a stop in front of the brick building.
Erwin, once a highway patrolman, saunters outside the welcome house.
He explains to the drivers how the shrubbery and trees create a blind spot when cars pull out of Cherry Grove, and he playfully teases the drivers about their near collision. With their windows rolled down, both drivers are laughing as they drive onto campus.
Perhaps it is because Erwin has a daughter and now a grandson. Perhaps it is because he faced worse situations in his former career. But Erwin shows his expertise in stressful situations like these, because he possesses the skills in not only knowing what to say but also how to say it, to diffuse anxiety.
“Safety and Security officers are all about helping somebody,” said Carson Hawkins, Safety and Security director. “They have something in their DNA that when something goes down, they’re going to do something about it.”
One of the few departments to deal with the entire campus constituency, Safety and Security officers’ goal is to proactively safeguard the Union community, including students, faculty, staff and visitors.
This 18-member team actively strives to ensure the well-being of each person who steps onto Union soil. But the officers’ responsibilities remain largely unknown to the campus community.
“None of it in itself is rocket science,” Hawkins said. “But when you (consider) all the information they have to have at their fingertips to respond to things, it gets pretty overwhelming.”
Hawkins is certainly aware of the difficulties the officers face. Not only has he served more than two years as the department’s director, but he also wrote the manuals he uses to train Union’s officers.
He keeps the manuals, thick as Webster’s dictionaries, stacked alongside books such as “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” and pictures of his wife, four children and New York Jets’ quarterback Tim Tebow.
Of all the tactics Hawkins teaches, being proactive is one of the most important, he said.
Security officers constantly patrol during the three shifts that span a 24-hour period, hoping to deter crime while they help students by unlocking classroom doors or changing flat tires.
But maintaining a proactive stance throughout Union’s 290 acres requires more work than merely cruising in one of the long, white patrol cars that bear the Union logo.
Despite their extensive training and striving to remain technologically updated, good communication is the glue holding the department together, Hawkins said.
However, the way each officer accomplishes what Hawkins calls being the “eyes and ears” as a campus watchdog can differ.
Second shift officer Michael Lee spends much of his 3 to 11 p.m. shift simply chatting with people to stay up-to-date on campus life and activities.
A 2009 Union alumnus and former player and coach for the men’s soccer team, Lee is a campus favorite for many. Students he once coached call out to him from rolled-down windows as they slowly drive by, a greeting that is followed by good-hearted jeers and inside jokes formed on the soccer field.
As he monitors the campus, Lee makes it clear he knows the people as well as they know him. Now enrolled in Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he calls many students by name and asks about their classes and their lives.
“I used to think I was busy as a student,” Lee said, laughing. Now as a husband, father, seminary student and security guard, he realizes his college days were much easier than he previously believed.
But Lee has yet to lose his youthful spirit – a trait particularly seen in his choice of patrol transportation. He prefers driving the Gator, a green utility vehicle that makes patrolling seem like a safari trip across rustic plains.
The small vehicle is able to make quick turns and traverse over grass, sidewalks and cement medians, creating a jolting ride across campus.
He zooms down Joyce Barefoot Drive toward Country Club Lane and jerks the steering wheel left. The Gator responds like a hand to hot metal, lurching toward the soccer fields without missing a beat.
Cantering across the bumpy lawn, he slams the vehicle to a stop to greet an old college buddy.
Lee then speeds off on the Gator to continue monitoring the campus perimeters on a wind-whipping ride.
Lee also works with the security team to supervise gatherings in order to send proactive nonverbal messages.
After reprimanding a reckless driver who almost slammed his pickup truck into a group of pedestrians, Lee drives to Miller Tower to monitor an Alpha Tau Omega bidding event.
As fledgling Greek initiates run past Brewer Dining Hall screaming with excitement, Lee sits in the Gator, parked in front of the tower, to watch activities from a distance and to make sure no one gets hurt.
Having been involved with a fraternity as an undergraduate, he cannot keep the smile off his face as the men jump in the air, chant and tackle each other to the ground.
Not every officer socializes with the campus community. Adam Panisiak, first shift supervisor from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., spends much of his time communicating behind the scenes.
A former security officer at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., Panisiak always begins his work day at Safety and Security’s squad room in the Student Union Building.
Surrounded by campus maps and event charts scribbled with notes and reminders, he settles into a swivel chair to check the office computer for work orders, ranging from leaks to blown light bulbs. He then submits electronic forms to university maintenance staff.
A husband and father, Panisiak has played a major role in several university-wide communication projects. One of his biggest projects was the formation of E-911, a campus landline system that provides specific location information to emergency services.
He said the endeavor took six months to complete, during which time he designed a spreadsheet documenting the location of more than 630 campus phones. When he first began his job, Panisiak also helped locate the campus fire alarm control panels and instructed other officers on how to operate them.
Panisiak, a graduate from American Military University in Charles Town, W.Va., believes safety is communicated in many ways.
“(People) don’t think we do much,” Panisiak says, grinning, as he slides onto the driver seat into the patrol car, parked behind Brewer Dining Hall. “Sure, a lot of security is driving around and walking around. But the other side to the story is the perception. We’re being seen. We’re trying to be proactive in being seen through our uniforms and cars.”
Pointing toward the sprawling pavement between the Hope building Quads and Jennings Hall, Panisiak gazes through his black-rimmed glasses at parking lots. He explains how they are designed speak volumes about campus safety. Speed bumps, night lights and the lack of large shrubbery and trees help deter “would-be wrongdoers.”
But behind any great crime-fighting team is an even greater woman – and for Safety and Security, that person would be Melissa Hopper, department secretary for more than 10 years.
Hopper, a 2004 Union alumna, worked at Union when security officers were contracted from companies such as MaxxGuard.
She endured with the university community after a tornado ravaged the campus in 2008. She watched as the number of officers doubled in size and as former Safety and Security director Larry Ross died of malignant melanoma. Hopper has seen it all.
“We’re not trying to catch students in wrongdoing,” Hopper says, her hands clasped, “but we want to work with them to stop harmful behavior. We’re not standing here to punish the student; we’re here to help them with what they need.”
Hopper is a native Jackson resident who formerly worked as an administrative assistant to an appellate court judge and as a deputy clerk at the appellate court clerk’s office for the Tennessee Supreme Court.
She said her former job working with judges helped prepare her for the Safety and Security department, which often handles confidential situations: curfew violations, drug use and the like.
Hopper said the university used to be quiet during the summer, but those days are long past. This past summer, she said, seemed like a regular semester in terms of the busyness of the security officers.
“I’m right here for the students and whatever the officers need,” Hopper said.
Draining the last of his coffee – thickened and lukewarm – Erwin said the night shift is not a job many people can handle.
Erwin is alone for long hours, whether he is locking building doors or sitting in the welcome house, waiting for stragglers to rush back before the 2 a.m. curfew.
He also spends many hours simply cruising in the patrol car for what he calls “windshield time:” Watching for anything out of the ordinary.
Perhaps it is because he enjoys helping the people he does have the chance to see. Perhaps it is because he calls his job as a security officer “a breath of fresh air” compared to the drama from his former job.
But for Erwin, coming back to Union is like coming home.