Author: Drew Jaffe
The Campus Safety Advisory Committee — born out of last semester’s occupation of the Arthur G. Coons Administrative Center — held its first town hall meeting Tuesday in Dumke Commons. Community members discussed the merits of protective gear for officers, Campus Safety’s reporting structure and how the department can build a better relationship with students, faculty and staff, among other topics.
The committee co-chairs — Marla Stone, chair of the history department, and Jaime Hoffman, director of athletics — opened the meeting by introducing the rest of their team, which included Cleaning Service Supervisor Mario Bonilla, Tiger Cooler Evening Kitchen Supervisor Yolanda Sanchez and Director of Residential Education and Housing Services Chad Myers, along with student representatives Jesse Wong (senior) — the committee’s Greek Council representative — and Isa Kibira (sophomore).
After introductions, Stone reminded town hall attendees of the committee’s charge: to make recommendations to Vice President of Finance and Planning Amos Himmelstein regarding Campus Safety’s reporting practices and Oxy United for Black Liberation’s demand for the demilitarization of the department. In addition, the group will address Coalition at Oxy for Diversity and Equity (CODE)’s Campus Safety demands following the Sept. 5 on-campus arrest of a local community member.
Hoffman then reviewed what the committee had done so far, which included a study of five peer institutions of similar size and surrounding environment — Macalester College, Rhodes College, Reed Collage, the Claremont Colleges and Trinity College. The committee found, among other things, that none of the other institutions, save for the Claremont Colleges, wore bulletproof vests as part of their uniform and that only a few used military or police titles or rhetoric on a daily basis.
Hoffman and Stone then opened up the discussion to feedback from attendees. Many members of the audience said that officers ought to have a choice to wear bulletproof vests as part of their uniform, given the violent crime prevalent in the surrounding neighborhood and the increasingly common mass shootings on school campuses across the country.
“If we’re going to ask [Campus Safety officers] to put their safety on the line to protect us, I don’t see why apparel has any bearing on that,” one staff attendee said. “If they’re going to feel safe wearing a vest, that doesn’t affect me.”
Several attendees questioned whether the use of bullet proof vests counted as militarization of the department, believing that it was more a matter of personal safety.
One student raised concerns about the continued use of bullet proof vests, saying that it could lead the department to implement other measures in the name of personal safety, like arming officers with minor weapons. Chief of Campus Safety Victor Clay asked to take the discussion of weapons off the table, saying the department would never get weapons during his lifetime.
Several Campus Safety officers also weighed in on the topic, expressing support for the use of bullet proof vests. One officer emphasized the importance of protective gear by citing a recent situation in which Campus Safety responded to a call to find two students had been robbed at gunpoint.
“You take away my vest, I’m not going to respond; I’m just being honest,” the officer said.
Hoffman also asked the audience whether they thought the vests should be worn over or under an officer’s uniform. Most attendees who spoke up expressed no preference, saying it should be up to the officers. When asked, the officers said it was more comfortable to wear the vests over their uniforms. Hoffman said the committee learned during their research that vests last longer when worn over an officer’s uniform because they have less exposure to sweat and wear. Wong said later that hiding the vest underneath the uniform would provide officers with protection while limiting the visibility of vests to community members.
Conversation then shifted to a the broader topic of how to improve the relationship between Campus Safety and the community. Director of Student Life Tamara Himmelstein suggested that a standard set of criteria be created to dictate when Campus Safety officers should staff a student event as opposed to being on call. She noted that, in some cases, the presence of officers might indicate to students that the college distrusts them.
Stone raised the issue of how community members can report feedback on the department, noting that some felt uncomfortable participating in a reporting process that involved the department directly. Chief Diversity Officer and Vice President for Equity and Inclusion Rhonda Brown suggested those uncomfortable with reporting to Campus Safety be made aware of other avenues available to them — such as through her office or the human resources department.
Myers said that an anonymous and independent feedback mechanism exists via the bias incident reporting form. College General Counsel Leora Freedman added that her office is developing a formalized policy for civil rights complaints that mirror the complaint policy for sexual harassment, violence or discrimination.
Hoffman shifted the discussed to Campus Safety’s lines of reporting. Currently, the department reports to Associate Dean of Students Tim Chang. Hoffman said that at some of the comparison schools the committee analyzed, safety departments reported to a more centralized administrator like a chief financial officer. Several community members questioned whether it was appropriate for the department to report directly to student-focussed administrator despite serving faculty, staff and administrators as well, many of whom spend a large part of their day on campus.
“[Campus Safety officers are] always there, they do their jobs well … and it does concern me that they report to the student side when they’re really here for the full community,” an attendee said.
Tensions flared at several points during the meeting when some attendees perceived Stone to be challenging their suggestions, including her defense of the word “militarization” regarding the use of bullet proof vests.
Stone claimed that she was trying to represent a side of the discussion that was absent at the meeting, namely CODE students and faculty and those who initially raised the demands. Their absence sparked a conversation about how to increase student participation in future discussions about Campus Safety from all groups on campus.
Juls White, associate director of Residential Education, suggested that the committee create focus groups so that each group feels comfortable providing feedback in their own space.
The committee will consider feedback from the town hall before creating a list of recommendations it will submit to Amos Himmelstein April 15.
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