URBANA — More than 20 years after signing up to be one of the University of Illinois' first student patrol officers, Jeff Christensen has taken over the reins as the UI's new police chief.
Christensen, 49, began official duties as chief and director of public safety in July, when his hiring was approved by the UI Board of Trustees.
"One of the honors of being able to be chief here is the quality of the people we have working here, not only the officers, but the entire staff," Christensen said. "The passion that they have for our campus and especially our students' safety is tremendous."
Solving crimes and keeping people safe were the farthest things from Christensen's mind when he first enrolled at the UI.
He said his initial field of study, agricultural engineering, wasn't for him.
"I had made it through calculus, and then I hit physics — and I realized I could only recognize a tractor two out of three times," he said. "I realized it wasn't what I wanted to do with my life, so I transferred to liberal arts and sciences and got involved in sociology and criminology. I enjoy that."
Christensen's close friend, fellow UI student Doug Alba, was always talking to Christensen about exploring law enforcement. Today Alba is a police officer in a Chicago suburb.
"One day I saw an ad for a student patrol officer," Christensen said. "Since I had an interest in policing, I put in an application and was hired as one of the first student patrol officers."
Christenson remembers putting on a blue vest to patrol campus. Most student officers did their work on foot, serving as escorts for student safety, patrolling campus parties and reporting criminal damage and fights on the radio.
Christensen was a student patrol supervisor, so he got to ride a 50-cc Honda moped.
"I was on the moped in the middle of the rain and everything," he said. "From my experience with the student patrol, it was pretty apparent to me that becoming a police officer was what I wanted to do."
Former UI Police Chief Paul Dollins said he was impressed with Christensen's work.
"His job was to patrol the streets at night with a police radio and report anything suspicious that he saw," Dollins said. "He did a great job."
After graduating, Christensen was hired as a regular police officer. He has remained with the force ever since.
"Jeff is an outstanding individual, good person and good police officer," Dollins said.
Christensen said he enjoyed police work from the first day he put on his badge. He remembers taking part in a high-speed pursuit in which the car he was chasing flipped over, and he'll always treasure the opportunity to direct traffic before and after Illini football games.
"I was pretty convinced I didn't want to go anyplace else," he said.
In his spare time, Christensen earned a master's in human resource education at the UI, something he says comes in handy in his current position as chief.
He also teaches police-related classes at Parkland College.
Through the years, Christensen rose through the ranks from officer to sergeant, lieutenant, human resource development unit coordinator, special events coordinator and deputy chief of police.
When Kris Fitzpatrick became director of the Police Training Institute in 2007, Christensen was named acting police chief and applied for the permanent position.
He admits being a bit disappointed when Barbara O'Connor got the job in 2009, but he says it was all for the best.
"Chief O'Connor was the best person and the best choice at the time," Christensen said. "I learned a ton from her, and she took the blinders off of us. We were pretty darn good, but we had a lot of improvement we needed to do.
"She taught me the need to really look at what other agencies are doing, especially with initiatives and technology. I learned from her ability to logically present the need for funding and to be successful with that."
When O'Connor left the UI for a job at the University of Connecticut, Christensen once again was named acting chief. Once again he applied for the permanent post.
He says the hiring process was grueling, including interviews in Chicago followed by two or three days of interviews on campus.
"It was pretty exhausting, but it was good for me because I learned a lot from the process," he said. "I learned much about the concerns of the community that I would not have otherwise learned."
Christensen is in charge of a department of 65 sworn officers and a total of more than 100 employees (which include telecommunicators, business office and clerical records workers, security officers, emergency-planning employees, student patrol members and other student helpers).
"He is doing fantastic," said UI police Lt. Roy Acree. "We knew going in that if the decision was to promote Jeff to that position he would do a fantastic job.
"He is extremely intelligent, excellent dealing with people and he leads by example. He won't ask an officer to do something he isn't willing to do. He knows the university inside and outside, has contacts throughout the university and is well respected by the other local agencies."
The chief has already begun looking at the department's vision and mission statement to begin a strategic plan for the force.
He says he supports improving the force's use of technology, including the installation of additional cameras around the campus.
"Two years ago we had maybe 50 cameras on campus," he said. "Now we're at close to 700 cameras on campus."
The UI department is working with Champaign and Urbana to analyze crime on campus to determine the best locations to place additional cameras.
The department is also working with campus parking and other campus units to evaluate cameras in parking buildings.
"We have also set up a tech group to not only look at new technology, but how we can make better use of the technology we have, like license plate readers," he said. "We are based at a major research institution, and there's a lot of assets here we can use, from the research park to the College of Engineering."
He said the department has worked with UI housing to expand the camera network in residence halls and to start a security officer program.
"We now have a group of security officers who are our employees and are assigned specifically to housing when they are in session," he said. "That is working really well."
The department recently received a $660,000 grant from the Department of Justice to pay for crime prevention and crime analysis officers.
He says a police chief is only as good as the people who make up the force.
"I really do think we're an excellent department because of the people that make up the department and the support that we have, not only from the university, but also the community," he said. "I want to continue down that road to excellence and make it even better."