By: Kristen Beachy
Worldwide protests against police brutality and injustices in the law enforcement system were ignited following George Floyd’s death in May 2020. The momentum gave a voice to marginalized people that have experienced biases under the hands of policing across countries, cities, and campuses.
The Ohio Wesleyan Department of Public Safety is responsible for maintaining the security for students on and around campus and works in collaboration with the Delaware Police Department to accomplish this. On their website, the Public Safety Department states that they are “committed to providing a safe living and learning environment, including open and ongoing efforts to inform the campus about safety issues.”
While efforts are being made to do so, students have reported sentiment of the Public Safety officers fulfilling a duty of persecution, rather than protection, resulting in a student-initiated protest last semester. The experiences shared by students spark a debate on whether Ohio Wesleyan’s Public Safety is effectively providing a safe living and learning environment for its students.
While some students agree, others have raised concerns of feeling threatened and unsafe. Patience Savino notes that “Public Safety does a good job at giving me rides home at night when I don’t feel safe.”
A senior student, who wishes to remain anonymous, expresses that while their experiences with Public Safety have not “been as bad, traumatic, or abundant as some of my fellow Black and Brown/ BIPOC students on campus”, they do not feel safe or protected by the officers. “Regarding my run-ins with PS for something as simple as being locked out of my room, I am never met with hospitality, it's more of an eye roll, weird glances, and annoyance.”
The student added, “If this is how they are acting for a minor occurrence, how am I supposed to feel comfortable calling them if I am in real trouble? How do I know if those judgemental and weird looks won't turn into being profiled when I need them?”
The senior stated that they hold a similar sentiment about the presence of the Delaware Police Department, sharing that “I have only heard bad things about them and something as small as a DPD car driving by me as I am walking makes me tense up and hope they don't stop me for no reason.”
Another student, Pascal Fraire, said his sole encounter with DPD and the Public Safety department was generally positive. “Both officers were relatively nice. The main people who were rude were the administrators, one of which I believe has left the school. Besides my general distrust of police, DPD hasn’t done anything to make me further dislike them.”
Profiling and discrimination are pressing issues when it comes to Public Safety and the Delaware Police Department. Some students have not personally faced these issues but have witnessed them. “I have some friends who have been discriminated against by them”, senior Patience Savino stated. “My one friend got hit by one of their cars and then had to leave the school after they fined her. They hit her with their car and they fined her! I was really sad I had to see her go.”
Another student from the senior class stated that they believed they “have not been profiled by PS nor DPD, simply for the fact that I try to avoid them when I can.” With students fearfully avoiding those who should be maintaining their safety, Public Safety faces a challenge in bridging the gap between students and the department.
The anonymous student stated that the Delaware Police Department and Public Safety have specific areas they could work on.
“They can hire a more diverse staff. I have been at this school for a while now but I have only seen one Black PS officer and I am not even sure he is still here. He often interacted with students of color and made himself visible in and outside of his uniform.”
The senior added that this ties into another important element, noting that “Public Safety officers work on campus, they can read message boards, they often have to patrol events, what is stopping them from interacting with students? What is stopping them from attending open BSU, BMF, VIVA, events?” The student concluded by saying that “if they took the time to interact with and get to know students a little better, that could improve some relationships.”
Another senior class student stated, “I think one thing that they are doing well is being ready and on-call for students who need to get into their room and other matters. But PS & DPD could improve simply by listening to the students that they protect, especially the minority population.”
With last semester’s appointment of a new Director to the Department of Public Safety, the organization appears to be on a trajectory for change. The new director, Sean Bolender, previously worked for Ohio State University’s Public Safety. Bolender expressed a desire to “establish connections with marginalized students”, “provide diversity training”, and the “review of policies and practices for implicit biases”.
When asked about the steps he is taking, Sean Bolender stated, “The Department of Public Safety has been taking positive steps forward in our DEI goals. Before we dive into that, I'd like to highlight that there are internal and external factors important to acknowledge when looking at systemic racism. For internal factors, we have our own personal implicit biases and organizational cultures that can negatively impact students of color.” Some of the steps taken to address the internal factors included the entire department completing a half-day Racial Equity Institute's Groundwater course, which discussed systemic racism and white privilege. “The training is a precursor to taking the REI phase one two-day workshop that presents a historical, cultural, and structural analysis of racism. My goal is to have all Public Safety Officers complete the training by the end of summer 2021 semester,” Bolender added. Public Safety Officers also completed the university-provided training “Personal Skills for a Diverse Campus.”
With regard to the hiring process, Bolender stated that the department is “actively trying to increase the diversity of our staff and ensure our hiring process is fair and free of discrimination. We updated our job description to encourage a more diverse applicant pool and better reflect cultural awareness as a core value.” The Director added that the search committee has also been restructured to include two officers, two students, a representative of OMSA, and a faculty or staff member. “That altered our search committee to be 2/3rds outside of Public Safety.” Finally, those who are recommended for hire get interviewed by Bolender and Doug Koyle. “Our interview questions also were reviewed by Dr. Drake, and we were able to improve our questions to minimize the chance of disparate impact, should a question have implicit bias hidden within it.”
Dr. Simone Drake, the Hazel C. Youngberg Trustees Distinguished Professor and Department Chair of African American and African Studies at The Ohio State University, was brought in by the department “to provide her expertise and consultation services to the Department of Public Safety.”
According to Bolender, Drake “connected with students and Public Safety Officers to hear their concerns and perspectives. She also reviewed Public Safety policies and protocols, and she's finalizing recommendations to further our DEI efforts within the department; we anticipate her recommendations soon.”
Bolender also raised that “external forces have to be taken into account because while we cannot completely control their existence, we can minimize the harmful impact they have on students of color.” An example Bolender uses to illustrate this is of callers who might report a situation rooted in explicit racist reasons or implicit biases. “Generally we won't be able to discern that over the call, but the impact can be a negative encounter between a Public Safety Officer and a student of color. To minimize the possibility of a negative impact, Public Safety Officers are expected to respond to all students in an equitable manner with a baseline of respect and understanding.”
He adds that while there are some illegal issues they are required by law to report, it is not the role of Public Safety to discipline students, “but to approach every call from a position of neutrality and to document observations and facts as they are presented.”
Bolender also recognizes the presence of the Delaware Police Department on campus, stating that “we are fortunate that our partners at Delaware Police Department often determine it is appropriate to issue warnings. Students play a large part in that outcome by being truthful in the encounter and taking responsibility for their actions, but we recognize there are tensions and experiences that people of color have had with law enforcement across the county that may make these encounters stressful.”
He added that “as we earn back the trust and friendship of students, we hope to be seen as an advocate who will strive to see the best outcome possible for every student.” After years of a strained relationship between students and the Department of Public Safety, the efforts are a first step in hope of all members of the student body to experience the safekeeping role of the office.