Campus Police Departments Struggle with Issues of Race

Peter Schmidt, Chronicle of Higher Education, December 28, 2014

The head of the University of Pennsylvania’s police union was not pleased to hear how Amy Gutmann had ended up lying on the floor this month at her own holiday party.

Ms. Gutmann, the university’s president, had lowered herself onto her back to show solidarity with student demonstrators who staged a “die in” at her party as part of a national wave of protests over the killing of unarmed black men by police officers. The high-minded rationale for her action was exactly what inspired Eric J. Rohrback, the president of the Penn Police Association, to regard it as a faux pas.

In a letter published by The Daily Pennsylvanian, the student newspaper, Mr. Rohrback said Ms. Gutmann had delivered “a slap in the face to every person that wears this uniform and serves this university.” His letter accused the protesters of ignoring how the grand jury examining the shooting of Michael Brown of Ferguson, Mo., had “fully exonerated the officer.”

The tensions that have surfaced at Penn are similar to those found at many American colleges at a time of heightened attention to how the police treat members of minority groups. {snip}

Vassar College, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., was accused last year of racial profiling after campus security officers confronted two black women enrolled there for using their dormitory laundromat, and called the town police on a group of local black children and teenagers who had been noisy in the library. Catharine B. Hill, Vassar’s president, in August announced that the college had taken several steps to deal with the problem, such as amending its antidiscrimination policies to explicitly prohibit racial profiling and hiring a consulting firm to assist in a review of campus security practices.

As reported in The Chronicle of Winston-Salem, N.C., students at Wake Forest University held a town-hall meeting last month to discuss black students’ perceptions that the campus police ask them for their identification far more than they ask other students, and give disproportionate scrutiny to parties held by black fraternities and sororities. Regina Lawson, the university’s police chief, told the audience that her department had established a new bias-reporting system and plans to train its officers to avoid unconscious discrimination.


In his letter criticizing Ms. Gutmann’s participation in the “die in” protest, Mr. Rohrback, the police union president, said, “As a supervisor of law-enforcement employees, she should at the very least remain neutral and not give in to mob mentality.”

Instead of trying to rebut him, the university’s administration scrambled to mend relations with its police officers. Maureen Rush, vice president for public safety, said in a letter to the campus police department that was also published in The Daily Pennsylvanian that Ms. Gutmann had merely responded “instinctively” to the protesters and “is 110 percent supportive of each and every member of our police department, and law enforcement in general.”

At the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, administrators have stood behind the university police department in a much more concrete and controversial way, refusing demands from black faculty, staff, and student organizations that the campus police stop routinely publishing the race of suspects in campus crime alerts.

In a letter sent to Eric W. Kaler, the university’s president, a year ago, the campus’s Black Faculty and Staff Association had joined the departments of African-American and African studies and other groups in protesting what they described as a surge in campus crime alerts that described suspects as black men.

Saying the alerts had led to a rise in racial profiling on and around the campus, they called for the university to either remove the suspects’ race from crime alerts or give a written justification for providing such information. They argued that “efforts to reduce crime should never be at the expense of our black men.”


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