Officers promote security and positivity with student-athletes

BOSTON – When the Fighting Illini men’s basketball team takes the court Thursday night in a Sweet 16 matchup, there will be two sets of extra eyes and ears in the crowd looking out for the safety of the players, coaches and fans.

University of Illinois Police Department Assistant Chief Joe McCullough and Lieutenant James Carter have been working with the team since 2021, when the Division of Public Safety partnered with the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics to enhance the safety of its football and basketball programs. Officer Chris Williams works as the safety liaison with the Fighting Illini football team.

Although McCullough and Carter travel with the basketball team, the assignment is much more than that. They are trained and focused on addressing safety issues on and off the court, both during the basketball season and off-season. Most importantly, they build relationships with the players, coaches and staff to open lines of communication.

“The players realize that we are not here because of them but rather for them,” McCullough said. “Over the past few years, we have been able to build that relationship, and it is very common for us to speak with the players about social media issues, accessibility on campus, and added dangers of sports gambling – specifically about disgruntled fans or gamblers taking their anger out on our players, either in person or through online messaging.”

Anyone from the University of Illinois Police Department associated with athletic travel has been through a comprehensive dignitary protection course, where they study and practice the protection of a person or group in large, sometimes unruly crowds. Travel officers have also completed the required training to be able to fly aboard commercial aircraft while armed.

The Division of Intercollegiate Athletics reimburses Public Safety for costs related to travel, as well as a portion of the officers’ salaries, so the program does not detract from public safety resources available on campus.

Gamedays are busy for everyone, including McCullough and Carter. Road games in particular have packed schedules. In addition to the travel to and from the game location, McCullough and Carter provide security at the hotel and practice facilities, and of course at the venue during the game.

They are prepared for all kinds of security threats, including court stormings (where hundreds or thousands of celebrating fans rush from the stands onto the court after a big win) or unruly individuals.

“We coordinate with local law enforcement and private security depending on our itinerary and location,” McCullough said. “Occasionally during a season, there are identified security threats. So in the past we have worked with FBI and law enforcement to bolster any protection for those affected.”

That coordination has the added perk of being an opportunity to collaborate and learn from law enforcement agencies across the country, particularly Big Ten counterparts. The lessons learned and information shared helps Illinois police enhance security at their own home games, and vice versa for the other agencies.

But the most important relationships are always the ones forged with the athletes who, after all, are still Illinois students.

“Both men’s basketball and football staffs at their previous institutions had very good working relationships with their police departments, and they wanted to bring that to our campus,” McCullough said. “It is very important for the players to get to know our officers in a more real-life setting rather than just seeing an officer on the street or on a call.”