ORLANDO, Fla. – The University of Central Florida’s police department’s “Persons of Concern” detectives have prevented violence on campus without a doubt, according to Chief Carl Metzger.
"Fortunately, this program has been vastly successful and we've been able to avoid crises as a result of these detectives' efforts," Metzger said.
Two full-time UCF police detectives focus all of their days and all of their efforts solely on persons of concern.
They seek and investigate tips from classmates, roommates, professors and family members who report changes in appearance, changes in behavior, or anything else of concern about a student.
Detective Matthew Phillip Scott said “undoubtedly” he and his partner, detective Louis Rivera, are saving lives.
"Because sometimes these people are in a really dark place and they feel their only option is to hurt other people and that's what we don't want," Scott said. "We're able to identify the threat, mitigate it and get those people the help that they need."
Scott and Rivera split their time between UCF police headquarters, dorm rooms, the university’s counseling center and the nearby behavioral health treatment facility.
"Our whole goal is to build relationships with the students so we can try to support them in any way that we can," Rivera said.
Rivera became UCF's first Persons of Concern detective several years ago, selected for his background in mental health.
“I’m looking at it more how can we help this individual versus criminally,” Rivera said. “We don’t arrest people unless I truly, truly have to, and then we more get them resources to get them help. And that’s our biggest goal: getting them help so they can be part of society and then help other people out.”
Scott said they've identified and mitigated several threats that would have resulted in violence.
"We've been able to stop some very serious situations from occurring," Scott said. "We stopped actual violence from occurring. It's been scary."
Metzger said the University deported a Chinese national on an immigrant Visa violation after troubling behavior in 2018.
“A couple of years ago, we had a student from China, Wenliang Sun, who had purchased a couple of high-powered firearms and as a result of our intervention, we were able to prevent what we believe would have been a tragedy on campus,” Metzger said.
Metzger said Sun had bought a $70,000 sports car in cash and changed his appearance, among other "red flags."
Scott said sometimes students don't even realize they need help.
"Their eyes will be sunken in, they'll have a yellowish color to their skin, they just haven't showered, sometimes they haven't slept long periods of time," Scott said.
Metzger said the calls for help rise three times a year.
"The first week when kids are away from home for the first time, they don't really understand the stresses and pressures of being in an academic environment," Metzger said. "We see another little peak during mid-terms, and then at the end of the semester during finals is our largest peak and we see Baker Acts [hospitalizing someone for their own safety] just go through the roof. And it's predictable, we know that is coming, and we plan accordingly."
Metzger said the number of students held under the Baker Act has risen every year for the past several years.
“It’s troubling but the good news is that means that we are making sure that our students receive the care that they need to get better,” Metzger said. “We want them to get counseling and get treatment and then get back into the game. If we don’t know that they’re struggling, then we can’t get them to help that they need.”
Scott and Rivera also follow up on every student with whom they interact. They call the student, check in with family and friends, and make sure the student is going to counseling appointments and taking medication, if necessary.
"As law enforcement professionals, we have to evolve with society," Scott said. "This what we're doing right now is the future of law enforcement. We have to be able to identify the threat before we have another Parkland, before we have another Sandy Hook or whatever the case may be. We have to be able to reach those people who feel forgotten and let them know that people out here still care about them regardless of how they feel."
Scott said he's seeing the results.
"I can’t tell you how many times we’ve gotten calls from people who said ‘thank you,’' Scott said. “'Thank you for helping me.'”