Inviting Open Dialogue on Diversity in Campus Policing

On April 28, the new USF Debate Team moderated a forum titled “Diversity in Campus Policing,” which focused on fostering a “safe place to be forthcoming and respectful,” as explained by Professor Robert Boller, to discuss the lack of heterogeneity within Public Safety.

The forum was hosted in partnership with the Department of Public Safety, ASUSF, Black Student Union (BSU), and the Progressive Policing Community Advisory Board (PPCAB). USF Debate Team Coach and Rhetoric and Language Professor Robert Boller emphasized a “shared responsibility” in reimagining Public Safety, as well as individual accountability in unpacking personal assumptions and biases around campus policing. “It’s important to acknowledge it, because without acknowledging it you cannot move forward,” said BSU President D’Vine Riley.

When explicitly asked whether or not Public Safety is diverse enough to ensure “inclusive safety,” Director of Public Safety Dan Lawson readily acknowledged that Public Safety “at the management and leadership level is not diverse.”

In response to a question about how she would describe diversity, Riley focused on “the inclusivity of thought.” Riley argued that there could be “people of color in the room, but it’s not the same if their voices are muted.” Riley referenced how content she felt knowing that people like Dispatch Supervisor April Al-Shamma Jean (an alumni of USF’s Black Student Union) understands the problems their community faces and considers “these frustrations into policy-making rooms.”

Jean consistently reminded both the audience and the panelists that the Department of Public Safety employs a number of people, saying that “when you think of Public Safety you think officers, but it’s more than just that.” Public Safety includes people who work as dispatchers, community safety officers, lieutenants, and sergeants. Each employee attends anti-racism and implicit bias training in conjunction with state-certified training and specifically tailored University mandated training.   

Lawson further reported that, in addition to this training, the University is supporting a program within Public Safety, the “Public Safety Scholarship Program,” which is intended to diversify the department and support the inclusive promotion of Public Safety Officers. “Our challenge was we take someone from dispatch or a community service officer, and if they didn’t pass [the police academy], there wouldn’t be an opening for them to come back to,” Lawson said, explaining how the program should support improved opportunities for upward mobility among Public Safety staff. 

The various relationships and potential power dynamics in play between the campus community and Public Safety officers was a pressing topic addressed during the panel. The panelist Sergeant Ray Habon prompted an eye-opening realization when he asked the audience: “How many times do you all come up to an officer and just talk?” No one raised their hand, with a few scattered chuckles heard around the room. Habon recounted a story in which he was called to help a student in crisis. After talking with the student for some time, the student told Ray that he had “never known we were allowed to talk to” Public Safety officers.  

Riley said that  the disconnect between students and Public Safety Officers comes from a supposed “sentiment that Public Safety is only there to instill disciplinary action.” Riley concurred that students should not be discouraged from “relating” to Public Safety officers, and that they should acknowledge the officers as people “who are there to ensure the safety” of the community. 

Jean echoed this desire for a more understanding and familiar relationship and wished for students to not be afraid to use crucial resources. “The idea that you’re afraid to call? Express that,” Jean said. “We all have our breakdowns, we all have our personal things going on.” 

After the panel, a brief Q&A followed that contained questions that were both pre-selected and taken from the live audience. Participants wanted to know how to “measure” the policies and progress of Public Safety’s proclaimed “reimagining” efforts. Kahuna Salavea, the PPCAB Program Assistant, said the Board acts as an “accountability measure” that keeps Public Safety committed to its mission of inclusive policing. 

Salavea explained that “we happen to live in a world where race matters,” and that identities like race “inform the insight given” in spaces where voices reflective of the community need to be heard. 

The PPCAB board consists of three faculty members, three staff members, and three students. There is an official Black Student Union seat and Lawson, as the Public Safety Director, resides on the board. PPCAB’s website has public access to the board’s minutes. 

A participant challenged the PPCAB’s ability to keep the community consistently informed due to the website not being fully up to date. Salavea took full accountability for the dated information and promised to implement the necessary changes. 

After an inquiry into the nature of current implicit bias training, Lawson discussed the journey from the “inconsistent” training observed in 2003 to the reimaging efforts today. Lawson acknowledges the first Public Safety forum (created by then freshman BSU member D’Vine Riley) marked a turning point in addressing bias within Public Safety. After BSU’s request to utilize USF professors in re-educating Public Safety employees, Lawson noted a new approach to policing with revised values, in which “we [Public Safety] serve you, not the other way around.”

When the panelists were asked to speculate on the future of Public Safety and inclusive policing, there was a consensus around the desire for a more holistic approach to ensuring the safety and well-being of students. Both Lawson and Riley recognize how unsustainable current measures are for both the community and Public Safety. Riley believes the University is “severely understaffed” and this leads to “inadvertently” asking resident assistants and Public Safety employees to “respond to situations they are unable to handle.” 

Lawson acknowledged that Public Safety officers shouldn’t be dealing with mental health crises and substance violations. He instead is considering an expansion in the services and support Public Safety can offer students, such as transporting students to medical appointments or ensuring the campus shuttle nightshift is driven by the University’s campus safety officers.

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