“Progressive” and “policing” are two words that are not usually associated with each other. With law enforcement’s history of institutionalized racism, Dan Lawson, Director of Public Safety at USF, has been searching for ways to reform policing culture. The most recent is the creation of the Progressive Policing Advisory Board, which includes USF students, faculty and staff whose aim is to foster community conversations about the best policing practices.
”My challenge has been to challenge all of us in law enforcement to look more at science, human behavior and the study of police practices, and to start to question those practices to see [if] they’re actually effective,” Lawson said.
Over the past summer, ASUSF President Reyna Brown and Lawson met to discuss a policy for the crime bulletin that omits racial, ethnic and gender descriptors. The policy had been in effect for a few years, but Public Safety broke it last year. “We made a mistake. We put out a description and mentioned a black male. Obviously, we appeared to violate our own policy,” Lawson said. He then assembled an advisory board to confront the issue more thoroughly and at the community level.
Studies have found eyewitness evidence to be largely unreliable. “When we’re not even sure the height, the weight, or when some people think that a light complexioned African American is actually dark complexioned, we’re getting a lot of poor information that often matches our faculty, staff and students on campus,” Lawson said. “We’re not going to subject people to unwarranted detentions because we don’t have good descriptions.”
The Progressive Policing Advisory Board was assembled at the beginning of the 2017-2018 academic year. The failure of the previous policy was the lack of community buy-in, according to Lawson. “We decided to bring those who had been offended together and discuss this,” he said. “We had the policy reviewed by everybody and made sure it was a very inclusive committee, then we published it. It has been our policy since.”
Under the new policy, the crime bulletin can only include racial and gender descriptions if Public Safety has a clear photograph, video or artist rendition of a perpetrator who has repeatedly appeared on campus and poses as a threat for future incidents. “Public Safety is going to take note of what the victim says, but it won’t be published until then,” said Kiana Martinez, ASUSF’s student representative on the advisory board.
The current policy has been widely well-received by students, staff and faculty, according to Brown. “The full senate was on board,” she said. There were previous drafts that received more criticism, but Lawson was only contacted with two complaints this time around. Lawson had a conversation with an attorney who complained on behalf of his girlfriend, a current USF law student. Lawson said, “I got to the point where I asked him ‘why do you really need to know if it’s not going to be very specific?’ [The attorney] said, ‘because I just need to know.’” Lawson continued, “So, it wasn’t really serving a purpose in keeping them safe.”
Featured Photo: Public safety is looking to reform procedures after they violated their own policy last year by putting out a physical description of a suspect. EAMON O’LEARY/FOGHORN