After a series of police shootings of unarmed black men both on and off college campuses over the last few years, higher education institutions nationwide have been working to ensure that campus police are more culturally competent and better prepared to engage with the community. Some colleges and universities are doing so by instituting mandatory community engagement and comprehensive diversity training programs for their police forces.
[Above: A UMass Amherst police officer patrols campus in a squad car.]
The Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) invests heavily in ensuring the cultural competency of its police officers, says Assistant Vice President of University Police and Public Safety Charlie Noffsinger. The university does this, he says, via its hiring process, robust recruit-level training, in-service training, active supervision, and broad community engagement.
“We take a holistic approach, and it’s a collaborative effort,” Noffsinger says. “Everyone plays a role — not only in their own safety, but in the safety of others — through awareness, prevention, and recognition of issues and concerns.”
As part of the school’s community engagement efforts, Penn State police personnel participated in more than 300 community education programs during the 2015-2016 academic year, which drew more than 4,000 participants, including faculty, staff, students, administrators, and community members. One such program is the annual Living In One Neighborhood (LION) Walk, during which campus law enforcement staff members go door to door in the area surrounding campus to introduce themselves and welcome people to the community.
“We reach out to the community during the LION Walk, but we’re also out and about every day engaging with a wide spectrum [of people] on our campus,” Noffsinger says.
In August 2015, in an effort to examine the relationship between law enforcement and underrepresented racial and ethnic groups in the community, Penn State and the State College Borough commissioned the Task Force on Policing and Communities of Color; its final report was made public in July. David Gray, Penn State’s senior vice president for finance and business, says the key takeaway from the report is that Penn State area police departments have much work to do to improve the diversity of their forces.
“The community needs representation on these forces with which they can identify,” Gray says.
Although the diversity of Penn State’s police force is not yet a complete reflection of the student body and campus community, the university continues to work toward inclusive excellence. Campus police officers are required to take a variety of training courses annually, many of which have a component on diversity and cultural competency. These sessions include racial diversity workshops for campus security employees, biased-based policing awareness training, in-service training on cultural diversity and implicit bias, and open forums with students to discuss issues around diversity and inclusion.
“It’s not a check-the-box training program,” Noffsinger says. “It is something we do on an ongoing basis.”
Diversity is engrained in the culture at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Amherst, including its police department, says Tyrone Parham, UMass Amherst assistant vice chancellor and chief of police. At least annually, police personnel participate in general cultural competency training, and this past year, the school added transgender training.
“UMass Amherst has a transgender expert who runs our LGBTQ resource center, and he did a presentation for our campus police staff on a number of national [issues] — transgender restrooms, using proper pronouns, and perceptions of the community,” Parham says.
Although diversity training covers many topics, he says staying up to date on national news is a critical element in ensuring proper knowledge and sensitivity to other identities.
“We can’t operate in our own local bubble because we have students coming from all over the country, and our staff needs to understand [their] backgrounds and perspectives,” he says, adding that it’s crucial to identify implicit biases such as racial profiling in police personnel.
In addition to ensuring that his staff is aware of common biases, Parham says that part of keeping students safe is fostering an environment that encourages reporting.
“We only know what happens if it [gets] reported, but some in the community from underrepresented groups may not want to report [incidents], so we try to be proactive and not just responsive,” he says.
Security on campus extends beyond providing a place where students feel safe; UMass Amherst helps parents achieve peace of mind regarding their children’s safety by inviting them to new student orientation. During a session with campus police, parents learn about local crime statistics and common campus issues, as well as the availability of resources provided by campus police.
At the University of Texas (UT) at Austin, the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement establishes basic requirements for police diversity training, according to Charles Bonnet, Support Services Division Counter Assault Strike Team leader for the UT Austin Police Department.
One such requirement is an eight-hour course aimed at increasing awareness of many elements of diversity, discrimination, bias, and difference. Highlights of the class, Bonnet says, include recognizing that personal, cultural, and institutionalized discrimination creates and sustains privileges for some and disadvantages for others; realizing that diversity includes coming to grips with one’s own attitudes, beliefs, and expectations of others and accepting those differences; and understanding that the term “mosaic” society — defined as individuals who maintain their own cultural systems — is replacing the term and concept of a “melting pot” society, in which cultures homogenize.
“UT Austin goes above and beyond what the state requires,” Bonnet says, adding that the university has its own police academy. After new officers graduate, they undergo a field training period that includes cultural diversity as a core competency.
“Especially because we are a diverse university, we want to ensure that officers respect the unique perspectives of the campus community,” he says.
UT Austin’s current goal is to recruit new officers to help the police force become increasingly reflective of the community. Although these personnel are taught to look through a “cultural diversity prism,” Bonnet says the university’s concept of diversity goes further than cultural differences. For instance, all UT Austin police are also certified mental health officers and participate in crisis intervention training yearly.
“We are trained to deal with different mental illnesses or [individuals] who may be emotionally disturbed,” he says.
One officer had the opportunity to put this training into practice last year when student services informed campus police of a possibly suicidal transgender student. An officer responded to the report, discussed with the individual her depression and suicidal thoughts, and advised her to meet with school counselors.
While Bonnet did not speculate as to the officer’s long-term impact on the student, he says he believes that “validating someone’s feelings, and even their existence, is a positive thing, particularly when it comes from an authority figure like a police officer.”
Another important aspect of inclusion at UT Austin is community outreach — such as greeting passersby — which aids campus police by improving their visibility and perceived approachability in the community.
“We don’t want someone’s only interaction with us to be a negative one — a traffic citation or involvement in an act of violence,” Bonnet says. “We want to make sure they have positive interactions with our law enforcement personnel.”●
Lauren Healey is a senior staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.