The University of Rhode Island’s prosecution officer uses her role on the force to help students, both during and after the incidents that lead them to her.
Debbie Sheldon has worked as an officer for URI campus police since 1982, and said she has been the prosecution officer for approximately the last 10 years.
“Being the prosecution officer, it’s a lot easier for me to help I guess,” Sheldon said. “That’s the biggest thing, is just continually helping and hopefully guiding them in the right direction. Because they’re kids, they’re still kids and they’re still learning, and you don’t want them to think that they make a mistake and it’s going to ruin their life… So I try to explain to them [that] ‘this is not a big deal, you’ll get through this.’ And if I can do that for just one or two of the kids who get into trouble, and make them feel better about it, then that’s what I want to do.”
When students have to get arrested or have to go to traffic court for an incident that occurred on campus, Sheldon is the one who goes to court for and with the students. Sheldon said she’s the one that is there as a liaison for the students, and she tries to help them in the process.
“I try to give a lot of community service, figuring that might help,” Sheldon said. “And I do send them, a lot of times, to the Catholic Center, because it’s just a good environment for them to be in. And if they don’t have cars on campus it’s a lot more convenient. And there’s the recycle center, they can do that, [and] the library right on Upper College Road, they’ll do some community service. So there’s quite a few places on campus you can go if you don’t have a car to go off-campus to do your community service.”
Sheldon is also the liaison officer for Student Life. She must notify Student Life of any incident that involves a student and talk about what took place, including her opinion on the incident. Sheldon said that she always tries to talk to students before they get to court, or at least before they go in front of the judge, to let them know what to expect when they go before the judge and what her take on the incident was.
“Most of them are first-time offenders, so they don’t have a clue,” Sheldon said. “And I know they’re all afraid, and I’ve had several students call me because they all had class today, or papers, or midterms are happening… So they’re like ‘I have class, or I have this or I have that, can I have another court date?’ So I’m able to oblige them that way and just give them different court dates. I try to make it a little bit easy for them, as easy as I can.”
Originally from Warwick, Rhode Island, Sheldon decided to attend Fresno State in California for college saying that, “I figured if I was going to go away I might as well go far.” Sheldon began working at URI soon after graduating college, and believes this affected her relationship with students.
“I was almost the same age as the students, so it kind of helped in a way,” Sheldon said. “And every year it’s the same age group. So nothing ever changes.”
Sheldon said she has received gifts from students in the past thanking her for her work. She emphasized that she enjoys having a friendly relationship with the students.
“One time I got flowers from a student because I helped them out, and it was just like a ‘thank you’ kind of thing, so that was nice,” Sheldon said. “And then you get cards, just to show they appreciate the help that you have given them. So those are always nice things to show that they appreciate the help that you have given them… And it’s a lot of fun, this age group, everybody’s just learning what they want to do in life and exploring themselves, so it’s a fun atmosphere, if it can be.”
Sheldon noted that many of the campus officers want to interact more with students, outside of investigations or arrests. She said she wants students to understand that it’s not a “‘them against us’ kind of thing,” as some opinions within the nation has recently reflected.
“[Students] can come here anytime and interact with us if they have things that they want to do as far as committees and clubs and stuff that they want us to be a part of or come and talk [to]. There’s a lot of officers on campus that would do that… So they don’t just see us when they’re having a problem.”