TAMPA — You could feel the worry in the room.
At a freshman orientation session recently, hundreds of parents listened intently as University of South Florida officials told them about meal plans and parking passes and health services and the library.
With just a few weeks left until the fall semester begins, there was still much left for new USF students and parents to learn. But as concerns piled up like the green-and-gold brochures in their laps, a woman sitting in the corner smiled calmly.
Lt. Charlotte Domingo was there to put those concerns, and many the parents hadn't yet thought of, to rest.
"They're trying to think of all the logistics, in addition to worrying about their children leaving the nest," Domingo said. "I'm thinking about making sure they're safe."
The USF Police Department is not your typical law enforcement agency. Officers have badges and guns and make plenty of arrests, but they also have other, more specialized responsibilities.
Patrol duties include time spent interacting with students on campus. Officers put on self-defense courses for class credit. They keep in touch with professors. When students are arrested or are victims of crimes, the officers often let the teachers know that the student may have to miss class.
"Our mission," said USF police Chief Tom Longo, "is to support the university's academic mission."
By nature, university police departments have to be a little different. They watch over their own mini-cities, with thousands of new residents moving in each year who have never lived away from home. Throw in heavy expectations from nervous empty-nesters left behind, and you can understand the challenges.
For many officers, it's a calling.
"A lot of officers could make more money elsewhere," Longo said. "There are other opportunities out there."
But working at USF affords different kinds of benefits. Longo pointed to the calls and letters he gets from parents, thanking him for keeping their kids out of trouble.
There are also thank-yous for getting kids in trouble — for arresting them, that is. For many students, it's one of the most important lessons they'll ever get in college.
"It's like pushing the reset button," Longo said. "It can get them back on track."
What kind of arrests are we talking about?
The majority of crimes on campus, about 60 percent, are not committed by students.
The biggest crime is theft. Laptops, bikes, cellphones and other belongings left unattended are often lifted. Forced entry burglaries or robberies are rare. So are more serious crimes like rape, assault or murder.
Nevertheless, at the orientation, someone asked Lt. Domingo if students are allowed to carry stun guns or Tasers.
Two ounces of pepper spray is all that's allowed, Domingo said, about the size of something that would fit on a key chain.
But chances are the students won't need it.
In her 22 years as a police officer, Domingo told the parents, people with pepper spray accidentally gas themselves more often than ever having to use it on a bad guy.
A few people chuckled. The relief was palpable.
As the orientation session wrapped up, Domingo ducked out to set up an information table in the Marshall Student Center lobby. Across from her display was one promoting the university's equestrian team. Next to it, information on a student judo club.
Domingo spread out a green tablecloth, set up brochures on student safety and put out a bowl of candy.
A wide-eyed mother walked by, and Domingo handed her a booklet with police phone numbers.
"Yes, yes, that's important," said Lynn Dierksen of Orlando. Dierksen's 18-year-old daughter, Morgan, is coming to USF in the fall.
Soon a man with questions about theft walked up. Dave Pendergraft, whose son, Will, was looking at another display somewhere else, wanted to know about registering bicycles with police.
"I just put new tires on it," Pendergraft said. Domingo handed him some paperwork.
Then came another mother, Esther Vazquez-Guinan from Miami. They started talking about a rape-prevention course.
Vazquez-Guinan took a brochure but didn't walk away.
"I have to let go," she said of her daughter, Alexandra Guinan.
Soon, but not yet.
Kim Wilmath can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337.