Chief of police interviews on campus

My campus is currently hiring for a new chief of the campus police. For each of the four candidates, there was an open presentation, followed by a Q&A session. I decided to attend, to make sure questions get asked about dealing with racist policing practices. While there is a lot of critique about policing in general, this is a search that is happening, and the position will be filled no matter what I think of the system. So I went into this with the perspective that, until we change the system, we can at least try to influence which people get into these types of positions.

It has been a learning experience. Each started with a presentation, responding to a prompt about their vision of modern policing.

A couple of the candidates focused on the idea of professionalism in their presentations. Apparently a lot of campus police feel like they’re treated as less than professionals – other cops treat them like kiddie cops or glorified security guards, and their pay rate doesn’t really communicate respect for them as professionals. So it was interesting hearing about the divisions between types of cops. For what it’s worth, it varies from state to state, but campus police at this university go through all the same training and licensing as any other type of police, and they carry weapons, can arrest people, and all that stuff normally associated with cops. That came up on the faculty list serve a few years ago, because the status of campus police affects how things like drug use (and I include alcohol as a drug) on campus gets reported in official statistics. So we might look worse on paper than a school where the campus police can’t arrest someone for a DUI, even if actual behavior is the same.

This focus on professionalism was also interesting in that at least two of the candidates explicitly talked about professionals needing to continually update procedures and practices. This was situated in relation to shifting to a more community-focused approach. One candidate who structured the whole presentation around professionalism also emphasized the idea that their goal is not just compliance, but voluntary compliance. From a pragmatic view, they pointed out that shifting to this approach saves time dealing with excessive force complaints and whatnot. Overall, it came across like saying the cops who refuse to update their practices, and still use the heavy-handed approach of issuing orders instead of starting with polite requests and explaining why they’re asking, are not acting like real professionals. And if they want to be respected as professionals, they need to act like professionals. I didn’t expect to hear that from a candidate for a chief of police position.

Cop who is not acting like a professional:
(AKA gratuitous Key & Peele clip)

One candidate centered their presentation around the Report of the Presidential Task Force on 21st Century Policing. I have to admit, I was not aware of this document before, but it was interesting to see how this was applied to what the candidate would implement here.

Another common theme was the differences that do exist between other types of police and campus police. The candidates who talked about that difference emphasized wanting to focus on education. This came out in their responses to how they would respond if a student complained they were being unfairly targeted due to race. One candidate who has mostly worked for city police forces, and whose only experience on a campus was at the chief level on a campus with over 80,000 students, responded that they would of course take the complaint, investigate, and possibly need to provide additional training for officers, depending on the outcome of that investigation. OK, so we’re acknowledging that there is merit to these complaints, at least sometimes, instead of just defending the cops, so that’s not bad… Definitely better than the candidate who spent half their response talking about needing to manage the biases students bring in from seeing the way police are depicted in social media! But, then a candidate who has spent most of their career working on campus police departments said they would take the complaint, check the stats to see if there is a pattern of bias, and respond to that if needed. But also, they would use the complaint as an educational opportunity with the student – watch the body cam footage together, and talk through the whole situation, including what the officer should have done differently as well as anything the student could have done differently. This candidate went into detail on how sometimes memories of what was said in the heat of the moment can be faulty, and either side may have said things they didn’t remember later, or with a different tone than they remember using… This was the candidate who focused heavily on professionalism, so even in this answer, they seemed to be focusing more on the need to train police to be more aware of their tone, and to focus more on de-escalation to try to get voluntary compliance, as opposed to some candidates who seemed to focus more on training students on how to interact with police.

When asked about dealing with tensions between students and city police in the off-campus student apartments, one candidate also mentioned some study that found campus police on average are better trained than city police (I didn’t write that source down, unfortunately). Like, they get more training, and have more resources (including time as a valuable resource) to focus on implementing what they learned in those trainings. They also noted that campus police get to focus on dealing with 18-25 year olds, whereas city police might respond to a domestic violence call in a trailer park, then drive across town to the rich white businessman’s house to deal with domestic violence there, then take a missing person report, and then go respond to some teenager’s mischief… So that officer needs to be trained for a wider range of potential scenarios, while campus police can focus more of their training on a narrower range of likely situations. Though they didn’t all go into this amount of detail, they all did focus on the need to for campus police to interact more with the city and county police, to help train them to deal with our students in better ways.

A few students did show up for these presentations. I learned from their questions that our campus police tend to be a lot better than the city or county police. I had mostly heard complaints before – there’s definitely a perception that cops respond differently to the Black students’ parties than they do to the predominantly white students partying in “Greek village.” Of course, those complaints don’t always specify which agency they’re dealing with, which may make a difference if the party is happening at an off-campus student apartment complex. I also know someone who used to work on the university police, and left, at least in part because he didn’t like the attitude of other cops. Relative to other police departments, though, it sounds like our university PD is moving in a better direction?

The candidates included 2 white men, 1 Black man, and 1 Black woman. I’m feeling some kind of way about the fact that the candidate whose answers I liked best was a white man. My second favorite was the Black woman. But how much do these different positionalities affect how they responded to questions and presented themselves overall? I’ve been in situations where several Black women could talk all day about their experiences of microaggressions (and some not-so-micro aggressions), and some other white person will explain it all away as misunderstandings, or maybe sexism but not racism… But the minute I speak up to back them up, “oh, I guess maybe it is real.” So it seems a lot easier for a white man than for a Black woman to stand up in front of a room that is at least 75% white, including several white police officers, and talk openly about police needing to understand the ways implicit bias can play out. Would she have responded differently if she were speaking to a room that was not predominantly white? If so, would I have preferred her answers?

I’ll be adding my feedback on each candidate this weekend, but who knows how much that will count, since I’m one of many people who attended only one session per candidate. It will be interesting to see which candidate winds up getting the job.