George Floyd’s death prompts colleges to review role of police on campus

It started with a football game. In the fall of 2015, students protesting then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s presence at Iowa State University’s annual rivalry match were taunted by tailgaters. One attendee went so far as to destroy a sign that a protester was holding. 

More than a year later, posters supporting white supremacy and sidewalk chalkings with homophonic and xenophobic speech cropped up on the campus, prompting fear and outrage within the community. 

At the time, students were concerned that campus police officers would do little to help, or that reporting the displays would make them a target of further harassment. Student activists demanded the university designate one member of the campus police to receive specialized training in race relations.  

The program has since blossomed, with more than a dozen Iowa State officers being trained a year. They learn about issues related not only to race, but also to sexuality and gender, as well as how to recognize their inherent biases. 

Now, pockets of the country are roiled by protests over systemic racial injustice. These demonstrations were spurred by the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died last week after a white officer with the Minneapolis Police Department pinned a knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Similar to how the episodes at Iowa State catalyzed change, campus police officials believe Floyd’s death will lead institutions to vet their policies and their relationships with outside law enforcement. 

Cutting ties with police

Students nationwide are demanding colleges sever ties with police departments they perceive as hostile to people of color and other minority groups. Some colleges have already done so. 

The University of Minnesota scaled back its relationship with the Minneapolis Police Department in response to Floyd’s death, saying it will no longer work with it for large events and specialized services such as K-9 explosive-detection units.

Clark University, in Massachusetts, will no longer use off-duty officers with the Worcester Police Department after some of its members appeared at a local protest for Floyd with riot gear and pepper-sprayed students, President David Angel said in a statement. The private university will also suspend its rule requiring a Worcester officer to attend large student events. 

Meanwhile, student leaders at Ohio State University urged administrators to end its contracts with the Columbus Police Department for on-campus investigations, services and events after they said officers used unnecessary force — wooden pellets, tear gas and pepper spray — during a protest last week.

The University of Virginia’s Black Student Alliance called for all outside law enforcement agencies, including local police, to be barred from campus — reiterating previous requests, it said. Similarly, Northwestern University’s union of graduate workers said the institution should divest from the Evanston (Illinois) Police Department and Chicago Police Department, which they wrote in a statement have “a history of violence against Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities.”

In Kentucky, the president of the University of Louisville’s Black Student Union, Maliya Homer, pressed the institution to cut ties with the local police. Officers with the department fatally shot Breonna Taylor, a black, 26-year-old emergency room technician in March. She was not being pursued for a crime. Police were trying to locate a man named Jamarcus Glover, who was suspected of selling drugs, and with whom Taylor had a previous relationship, according to media reports. But police identified Glover elsewhere at the same time as the raid on Taylor’s home.

Neeli Bendapudi, the university’s president, wrote to Homer on Wednesday, saying that ending its relationship with the department “would not make our campus or its constituents safer, and it would be an insufficient answer to a very complex problem.”

Bendapudi instead promised to ensure the university police serve as the lead agency on investigations primarily involving a student or employee and reduce the need for external law enforcement at athletics events. The university will also develop and mandate a “de-escalation and cultural sensitivity” regiment for any officer it hires or who works a university event, Bendapudi wrote. 

Enhancing training

Such training is helpful, but should not be one-time, said Michael Newton, an associate vice president and chief of police at Iowa State. Universities should weave cultural competency into every aspect of their law enforcement operations, Newton said. 

The process starts at the beginning of officers’ time with the department and includes officials in upper-level positions, he said. In December, the university police’s command staff and supervisors received training from Rite Academy, a consulting firm that coaches on cultural awareness and social and emotional intelligence.

During the hiring process, the department asks applicants how they would approach working with a diverse college population, Newton said. Citing the circumstances of Floyd’s death, Newton said his office might ask a hopeful how they would intervene if they saw a colleague using their knee to hold down a student’s neck, a tactic that is known to be dangerous.

“We teach officers it’s OK to intervene with one another, that’s part of racial intelligence training and building,” he said.

This type of change takes time. Departments might fail if they give up too quickly because they didn’t see immediate results, Newton said. 

Many officers, particularly those who come from predominantly white areas, do not recognize their own biases, said Lewis Eakins, director of public safety at Idaho State University.

Eakins travels the country every year teaching about inherent biases to four to five institutions that received grants from the U.S. Department of Justice. This type of instruction has grown more popular in recent years, though it is sometimes criticized for being ambiguous and lacking measurable results.

But Eakins puts great stock in such training. It, along with cultural competency lessons, should be a part of every campus and community police department’s efforts, he said. 

Eloy Oakley, chancellor of the 115 California Community Colleges, said this week he wants to revamp its law enforcement curriculum to make sure it addresses the needs of communities of color, CalMatters reported.

Campus police are uniquely positioned in that they generally interact more closely with the campus community than do municipal and state forces, Newton said. But campus police must work continually to establish rapport with the community, he said, noting he must prove to an influx of 5,000 to 6,000 students at Iowa State each year that his department is an ally. 

To keep a pulse on campus, the department created a student advisory board. 

“They know they can come to any of us, and we’ve had those interactions, and now my goal is that everyone feels comfortable, but that happens a step at a time,” he said.

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